Technology

More States, Cities Look to Test Drones

"Eye in the Sky" is fast becoming a reality for many states and municipalities as they turn to unmanned vehicles -- or drones -- for a variety of uses.
by | May 15, 2012

"Eye in the Sky" is fast becoming a reality for many states and municipalities as they turn to unmanned vehicles -- or drones -- for law enforcement, surveillance, emergency response or monitoring traffic, among other uses.

While privacy concerns about spying on Americans and difficulty in promulgating federal regulations have slowed the pace of implementation of unmanned flying equipment, experts in the field say the day is coming soon when drones will be flying routinely. In fact, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) is in the process of drafting rules to govern the initial testing for use of the drones, due by this summer. A full set of regulations is expected to be in place by 2015.

Meanwhile, many jurisdictions have received approval to begin using the drones. In Seattle, for example, the city police department has received approval to employ drones in law enforcement -- a key use for many cities contemplating the devices. Seattle police say they are training officers in how to fly them.

In the Washington, D.C., area, Fairfax County Police Chief David Rohrer said on WTOP radio's Ask the Chief program recently that drones will be patrolling the Washington Beltway -- infamous for its massive traffic jams -- in the next few years.

"Just as ... an alternative for spotting traffic and sending information back to our VDOT (Virginia Department of Transportation) Smart Traffic centers, and being able to observe backups," he said.

Audio interview from Ask the Chief courtesy of WTOP.

New Law, New Opportunity

President Barack Obama signed the Federal Aviation Administration Modernization and Reform Act in February, calling on the FAA to establish six test sites for the unmanned domestic aerial vehicles. Competition is fierce among many jurisdictions to be designated one of the sites because it would allow them to operate drones in their areas to see if their applications deserve wider use. But Congress, which passed the law, also had questions about privacy rights with the idea of hundreds of small, camera-laden, vehicles patrolling the skies.

A letter to the FAA, co-signed by the Congressional Bi-Partisan Privacy Caucus co-chairs Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.) and Joe Barton (R-Texas), stated that "there is ... the potential for drone technology to enable invasive and persuasive surveillance without adequate privacy protections".

The jurisdictions that are operating the unmanned vehicles at present are doing so under a separate certificate of authorization from the FAA. But experts in the field say those certificates, which are handed out one at a time, are difficult to get and tightly proscribe what activities can be conducted with the equipment.

"It is a laborious and difficult process to go through," said Marshall N. Wright, director of business development in the Utah Governor's Office of Economic Development. "That's one of the large complaints cities and municipalities have right now."

But with the new law and the efforts of the FAA, officials hope the process to operate drones will become easier.

Many cities, states and municipalities have partnered with universities in their efforts to explore the use of unmanned vehicles. For example, Utah has partnered with Utah State University to investigate three areas under the state's Division of Wildlife -- waterfowl management, tracking invasive plant species and using the unmanned systems to monitor rivers and creeks.

"We used to put sensors on manned vehicles to map the areas," he said. "That is very, very hard. Now, with an unmanned system, the folks at the water lab will be able to control the total mapping and if they want to take a good look at it, they use the unmanned systems to fly back and forth."

Other planned uses include :

  • Verifying building permits for new construction;
  • Search and rescue, particularly in hostage situations;
  • Checking dams to see if there are structural issues;
  • Checking for energy leaks in homes as part of conservation programs using heat-sensor technology;
  • Traffic relief;
  • Storm rescue to locate persons in distress;
  • Flying over a herd to detect sick cows (again, variations in temperature are the clue);
  • Pipeline and power line surveys

"This technology is the new wave of aviation," said Patrick Eagan, an unmanned aviation consultant and editor for the Small Unmanned Aircraft Systems News. "Anything that a manned aircraft can do, an unmanned aircraft could do for less money."

For example, police officers in Shelby County (Memphis), Tenn., estimate that they could fly the drones for $3.80 an hour, compared to $600 per hour to fly a large helicopter, including fuel and personnel costs. The Shelby County officers want to buy two small drones that they plan to use in finding missing persons, investigating traffic accidents and spotting illegal marijuana crops. (The Shelby County Commission has delayed a vote on buying the drones, according to The Commercial Appeal.)

Eagan noted that after the earthquake that hit the Washington, D.C. area last year, human rappelling teams were used to check for cracks in the Washington Monument. That, he said, could have been done much more safely and efficiently by flying a small unmanned aircraft with a camera near the edifice to look for fissures.

Drone Development Growing

According to the FAA, the number of unmanned aerial vehicles in the United States is growing steadily. About 50 companies, universities and government organizations are developing and producing about 155 unmanned aircraft designs, the agency reported. The FAA, in asking for comments on the proposed regulations and the test sites for the vehicles, noted that safety, efficiency and control of the operations are important.

In a letter to the FAA, the National Association of State Aviation Officials (NASAO) urged the agency to make sure that the rules promulgated dovetail with the "NextGen" system for air traffic control. The group said it recognizes the "tremendous economic benefit" of the unmanned vehicles and noted that many of its members have applied to be test sites for the devices, but also urged the FAA to keep "safety and the public interest foremost" in considering regulations.

Electronic Frontier Foundation, a digital rights advocacy group, filed a Freedom of Information Act request with the FAA to determine who is currently using drones and came up with a pretty big list that includes federal agencies (such as the U.S. Customs and Border Patrol), as well as states, cities and counties, (including police departments in North Little Rock, Ark.; Arlington, Texas; Gadsden, Ala.; and Ogden, Utah.)

View Map of Domestic Drone Authorizations in a larger map

In Nelson County, N.D., for example, the county sheriff hunted down three men who were suspected of stealing six cows. He had to search a 3,000-acre area for the armed men, enlisting the help of state Highway Patrol officers, a nearby SWAT team, and deputy sheriffs from three other counties, the Los Angeles Times reported. And they brought in an unarmed military Predator drone from nearby Grand Forks Air Force Base, which located the suspects so officers could arrest them.

The Miami-Dade Police Department has permission to fly two drones it acquired from the military tech firm Honeywell. The device is intended to provide information if a suspect with a gun has backed himself into a situation where it would be dangerous for a manned helicopter to fly. The county's drones have the same kind of video and still cameras in it as the unmanned vehicle that was used to photograph the nuclear reactors shut down after the tsunami in Japan in 2011, Miami-Dade police officials told the local NBC affiliate.

While privacy concerns have slowed the deployment of domestic drones, the widespread use of cellphone cameras, parking lot video, convenience store monitoring devices, even cameras mounted on street lights in some cities to monitor pedestrians, have gotten people accustomed to a constant camera presence, experts on the unmanned vehicles believe.

"My view is that we have enough closed-circuit TV within our society that the surveillance that would be added by the police using these is a non-issue," Utah's Wright said. "You can go into any parking lot, Walmart, whatever, you're on TV. Every time you go into a 7-Eleven, you're on TV. As we move along, our police and justice organizations will be able to use unmanned vehicles in the same way with the same restrictions."

He pointed to a recent "SkyMall" in-flight magazine that had an ad for a remote-controlled helicopter that, he said, could easily carry a tiny camera. He suggested that anybody could buy one of those.

"Your neighbor, if he feels like it, could look into your yard," he said.

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