Tom Brown / Reuters & John Lantigua / Palm Beach Post – 2008-03-28 22:41:21
Spy Drones in Demand by
US Police Departments,
But Approval Pending
Tom Brown / Reuters
• Video of a Honeywell MAF in action: (Copy and paste in browser.)
MIAMI (March 27, 2008) — The Miami police could soon use cutting-edge flying drones to help fight crime. A small pilotless vehicle manufactured by Honeywell International, capable of hovering and “staring” using electro-optic or infrared sensors, is expected to be introduced soon in the skies over the Florida Everglades.
If use of the drone wins US Federal Aviation Administration approval after tests, the Miami-Dade Police Department will start flying the 14 pound, or 6.35 kilogram, drone over urban areas with an eye toward full-fledged employment in crime fighting.
“Our intentions are to use it only in tactical situations as an extra set of eyes,” said Detective Juan Villalba, a police department spokesman. “We intend to use this to benefit us in carrying out our mission,” he added, saying the wingless Honeywell aircraft, which fits into a backpack and is capable of vertical takeoff and landing, seems ideally suited for use by SWAT teams in hostage situations or dealing with “barricaded subjects.”
And the Miami-Dade police are not alone. Taking their lead from the US military, which has used drones in Iraq and Afghanistan for years, law enforcement agencies across the United States have voiced a growing interest in using drones for domestic crime-fighting missions.
Known in the aerospace industry as unmanned aerial vehicles, or UAVs, drones have been under development for decades in the United States.
The CIA acknowledges that it developed a dragonfly-sized UAV known as the “Insectohopter” for laser-guided spy operations as long ago as the 1970s. And other advanced work on robotic flyers has clearly been under way for quite some time.
“The FBI is experimenting with a variety of unmanned aerial vehicles,” said Marcus Thomas, an assistant director of the bureau’s Operational Technology Division.
“At this point they have been used mainly for search and rescue missions,” he added. “It certainly is an up-and-coming technology and the FBI is researching additional uses for UAVs.”
The US Customs and Border Protection agency has been flying drones over the Arizona desert and southwest border with Mexico since 2006 and will soon deploy one in North Dakota to patrol the Canadian border as well.
This month, Juan Munoz-Torres, a spokesman for US Customs and Border Protection, said the agency would also begin test flights of a modified version of its large Predator B drones, built by General Atomics Aeronautical Systems, over the Gulf of Mexico.
Citing numerous safety concerns, the Federal Aviation Administration — the government agency responsible for regulating civil aviation — has been slow in developing procedures for the use of drones by police departments.
“You don’t want one of these coming down on grandma’s windshield when she’s on her way to the grocery store,” said Doug Davis, the agency’s program manager for unmanned aerial systems.
He acknowledged strong interest from law enforcement agencies in getting drones up and running, however, and said the smaller aircraft were particularly likely to have a “huge economic impact” over the next 10 years.
Getting clearance for the police and other civilian agencies to fly cannot come soon enough for Billy Robinson, chief executive of Cyber Defense Systems, a small start-up company in St. Petersburg, Florida. His company makes an eight-pound kite-sized drone that was flown for a time by the police in Palm Bay, Florida, and in other towns, before the Federal Aviation Administration stepped in.
“We’ve had interest from dozens of law enforcement agencies,” Robinson said. “They are preventing a bunch of small companies such as ours from becoming profitable,” he said, referring to the agency.
Some privacy advocates, however, say rules and ordinances need to be drafted to protect civil liberties during surveillance operations.
“There’s been controversies all around about putting up surveillance cameras in public areas,” said Howard Simon, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union in Florida.
“Technological developments can be used by law enforcement in a way that enhances public safety,” he said. “But every enhanced technology also contains a threat of further erosion of privacy.”
Copyright © 2008 The International Herald Tribune |
Miami-Dade Hoping to Use
Unmanned Aircraft to Fight Crime
John Lantigua / Palm Beach Post
MIAMI (March 27, 2008) — Today, Al-Qaeda terrorists and other US enemies in Afghanistan and Iraq have to worry about unmanned American aircraft — drones — tracking them from the skies. Someday, South Florida bad guys may have that same concern.
The Miami-Dade Police Department has asked the Federal Aviation Administration for permission to use a small unmanned surveillance aircraft for law enforcement.
The department says, if granted permission, it would employ the drone only in “tactical” situations that present a danger to officers on the ground.
According to the FAA, Miami is one of only two big-city police departments in the country that have applied for the permits. Houston is the other.
“It won’t be used for patrol or for traffic,” said Detective Juan Villalba, Miami-Dade police spokesman. “It would be used in SWAT team situations — like someone barricaded in a house, or where a hostage has been taken. It might be used to try to determine how heavily armed a person might be. It will not be armed itself.”
But the FAA says Miami residents shouldn’t expect to see drones in the air over Coconut Grove, Coral Gables or any other inhabited area until the technology advances.
“Unmanned aircraft would need to have the same ability to see and avoid other aircraft that manned craft have, and right now the technology does not exist to meet those criteria,” said FAA spokesman Les Dorr, speaking from Washington.
Dorr said Miami-Dade police may get a permit to test a drone over an uninhabited area, such as the Everglades. But to use the drone in police work over an urban area — especially a busy air corridor such as Miami-Dade — it would need a permit, which will be hard to come by.
“We have a responsibility to protect the public, both people on the ground and other aircraft,” Dorr said.
The drone that interests the Miami-Dade police is called the MAV — Micro-Air Vehicle — and it is made by Honeywell International. The radio-controlled unit weighs 14 pounds without fuel aboard and operates in the air like a helicopter.
“It can hover and go straight down or up, for example,” police spokesman Villalba said.
According to Honeywell, the MAV can operate at a maximum of 10,500 feet and at a top speed of 50 knots per hour. It can be carried in a large backpack and be deployed in five minutes.
In September, a Honeywell official estimated that the MAV — including the aircraft and its ground control system — would cost about $250,000.
“We wouldn’t fly it to the site of a problem,” Villalba said. “We would drive it to that site, deploy it and then pack it up.”
A video on the Honeywell International Web site shows the MAV in action in a “hover and stare mission.” The video is accompanied by music reminiscent of Mission: Impossible.
“It looks a bit like an office trash can,” Villalba said of the MAV.
That is true, but it looks like a trash can with legs, gas tanks and cameras, and resembles a poor cousin of the Star Wars robot character R2-D2. The video shows the craft flying at treetop height and higher and also relatively close to the ground.
Dorr said he thought the Houston Police Department had applied to test the MAV over ranchland far from the city.
Villalba said Miami-Dade police hoped to get a permit to test the MAV over the Everglades sometime this year. He said he understood the second permit, which would allow its use in law enforcement operations, might be tough to come by.
Civil liberties organizations have raised concerns over whether the use of such craft for police surveillance could violate citizens’ privacy.
Villalba reiterated that the police would not use the drones except in SWAT operations.
“Some people have referred to it as a spy craft, but it won’t be used for anything like that either,” Villalba said. “It will be used to protect the lives of officers.”
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