Drones Take to American Skies on Police, Search Missions

Drones Take to U.S. Skies In Police, Other Government Roles
AeroVironment's Qube unmanned aircraft system for use by law enforcement. Source: AeroVironment

For about the cost of a squad car, a deputy sheriff in Mesa County, Colorado, can track criminal suspects, picture an arson scene or search for lost hikers, all with the ease of tossing a toy glider into the air.

The sprawling county on the Utah line uses two remote-controlled drone aircraft, similar to those deployed against Afghanistan’s Taliban, to cover 3,300 square miles (8,600 square kilometers) of mountainous terrain. Remotely operated technology honed in the war on terror is letting Mesa County and state and local governments across the U.S. work faster and cheaper.

“We save a significant amount of time,” said Ben Miller, 34, who oversees the Mesa County Sheriff’s Office’s two drones from Grand Junction. “It provides a huge resource savings.”

About 20 state and local governments and 24 universities around the nation are authorized to fly remotely piloted drones, according to the Federal Aviation Administration. Those figures are expected to rise in coming years as the agency develops rules and standards to safely integrate them into airspace shared with planes, according to industry and FAA officials.

From search and rescue to monitoring water supplies, roads, bridges and forest fires, applications run the gamut, Ben Gielow, general counsel at the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International in Arlington, Virginia, said by telephone.

Use Picking Up

“They’re going to be used very aggressively in the future,” said Mary Scott Nabers, president and chief executive officer of Strategic Partnerships Inc., an Austin, Texas, industry consultant. “The federal government has allocated billions for these, and state and local governments will follow.”

Annual spending on unmanned aerial vehicles, or UAVs, worldwide will almost double during the next decade to $11.4 billion, according to an April report by the Teal Group Corp., a defense-industry consulting firm based in Fairfax, Virginia. It didn’t estimate how much of that will come from non-military buyers. Some drones are as small as radio-controlled model airplanes and cost less than those used in warfare.

“Use in the U.S. will clearly be a growth area,” Philip Finnegan, Teal Group’s director of corporate analysis and an author of the report, said by telephone. “Governments that in the past couldn’t afford helicopters can now afford UAVs.”

Privacy Concerns

Low-cost tools that make it easier for governments to monitor their territory by air have raised privacy questions, said Amie Stepanovich, national security counsel with the Electronic Privacy Information Center, a nonprofit group in Washington that monitors technology and civil liberties.

“Governments have been using aircraft for a long time, but if it’s cheaper and easier, it becomes more invasive,” Stepanovich said by telephone. “There are obvious benefits to drones, but if you buy a drone to monitor fires and then start using it to monitor individuals, we think there needs to be protection.”

Mesa County’s Miller dismissed such concerns, saying in a telephone interview that using the aircraft to spy on residents isn’t planned. To search private property, the sheriff’s office would need a warrant, he said.

“We’re not going to be looking in peoples’ backyards, because we don’t care what’s going on there,” Miller said.

Imaging Roles

The county runs a drone helicopter, a DraganFlyer X6 made by Draganfly Innovations Inc. in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, and a fixed-winged Falcon-UAV made near Denver, Miller said. Both can be transported in a vehicle. The hand-launched Falcon flies for as much as an hour while the 36-inch-wide DraganFlyer takes off vertically and runs for 15 minutes. The office uses both to make pictures, including three-dimensional and infrared images.

The drones cost $3.36 an hour to operate, which compares to $250 to $600 an hour for a manned aircraft, Miller said. The drones cost $30,000 to $50,000 each to buy, about the price of a squad car, he said.

The department, which has been flying drones for two years, has used them to help fire investigators study an arson scene, to search for hikers lost near McInnis Canyons and to look for a suicidal resident who had run off into the wilderness.

“It’s a tool in the toolbox,” Miller said. “The bird’s-eye view is huge.”

Not all government agencies have been happy with the technology or the FAA’s conditions for using it, however.

The Texas Department of Public Safety, which began a drone program in 2008 to enhance the security of officers confronting potentially dangerous situations, discontinued the effort in 2010, Tom Vinger, a spokesman in Austin, said by e-mail.

Abandoned Effort

The step was taken “as a result of concerns surrounding the complicated Federal Aviation Administration restrictions, battery life of the device, maintenance costs and deficient video quality,” Vinger said.

Startup companies see a growing market for less-expensive drones made for civilian uses, Teal’s Finnegan said. Building the aircraft without the burdens of military specifications can drive down the costs for government and commercial buyers.

Chris Miser, 35, began Falcon-UAV LLC, which made the Falcon used by Mesa County, after working on drones as a U.S. Air Force captain. He adapted the technology for non-military uses and cut the costs of making the planes.

“Law enforcement has been unaware that it can adopt the technology,” Miser said by telephone. “This is going to be the next thing for them to put to use.”

Possible applications for state and local governments extend beyond law enforcement, said Ryan Zinke, 50, a retired U.S. Navy SEAL and now a Republican state senator from Whitefish, Montana. Drones can be used to monitor forest fires or inspect water resources or other assets, said Zinke, who said he saw the potential while still in military service.

“It’s much more cost-effective than a helicopter,” Zinke said. He directs Montana State University Northern’s Center for Remote Integration in Havre, which is developing drone technology for government and business uses.

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