Cops and Drones

A discussion on police and civilian use of drones

Costs key to law enforcement drone use

How rapidly police deploy drones and what they use them for will be largely determined by how much they cost. But before drones become accessible to the average department, various players are working through a lot of issues, such as how exactly they will be used and how to protect personal privacy.

Those were themes that emerged Friday during an MPR News Ground Level video chat with three experts in the emerging field.

Right now, the use of drones for ubiquitous, military-style surveillance is simply too expensive for local law enforcement, said Ben Miller, unmanned aircraft program officer for the Mesa County Sheriff’s Department in western Colorado. The department is among the earliest adapters of drone use in the nation, sending an unmanned craft into the air every several weeks on such missions as crime scene evidence gathering, search and rescue efforts and sizing up wildfires.

Miller said the two crafts the department uses cost less than a patrol car and operate for about $25 an hour. But, he said, neither the equipment nor the department’s manpower is such that officers can conduct concentrated surveillance over long periods of time or do anything more than take pictures with inexpensive cameras.

“The general fear of the all-knowing, eye-in-the-sky really just doesn’t have a place in practical applications,” Miller said.

But Jennifer Lynch, attorney for the Electronic Frontier Foundation, which tracks digital information and rights issues, cautioned that the price of such surveillance is bound to come down, much as GPS-tracking capabilities developed by the military have.

Lynch said the foundation sees the value of unmanned aircraft for law enforcement and for environmental surveillance. “We want to be able to find people who are lost out in the wilderness. We want to be able to take accurate crime scene photographs.

But she raised concerns that society has not yet developed adequate guidelines governing what uses are appropriate and what happens to massive amounts of data once they are collected.

She also argued that unmanned aircraft pose a different challenge from older means of surveillance that courts have dealt with. “The ability to track people throughout their day raises issues that are different from a plane that flies over your back yard and takes one or two or a handful of pictures. That’s a static moment in time. It doesn’t tell us a story or a picture of your life.

Miller said police organizations are indeed generating guidelines for use and have time to work out appropriate practices. “It (ubiquitous surveillance) won’t become affordable in five years and I would venture to say it won’t become affordable ever.

Al Frazier, assistant professor at the John D. Odegard School of Aerospace Sciences at the University of North Dakota, which is seeking Federal Aviation Administration certification to fly drones on behalf of North Dakota sheriffs, agreed with Miller that people’s fears are unduly driven by what they know expensive military drones can do.

As far as law enforcement’s use of unmanned aircraft is concerned, Frazier said, “It’s very early in the implementation of this technology to try to predict. We should allow our courts to determine what is appropriate. The only way that we’re going to get some of these cases into the courts is to allow agencies to begin deploying small unmanned aircraft more frequently.

 

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