Dan Tracy / Orlando Sentinel – 2013-01-16 01:32:38
(January 12, 2013) — The Orange County Sheriff’s Office is experimenting with two surveillance drones that it hopes to turn loose over Metro Orlando skies this summer. Sheriff’s spokesman Jeff Williamson would not reveal specific uses for the drones, larger versions of which are known for flying over tribal regions of Afghanistan and Pakistan to drop bombs on suspected terrorists.
But Williamson did say Orange’s remote-controlled planes would not be armed. The agency still needs approval from county leaders and the Federal Aviation Administration to use them. The FAA said it does not comment on drone applications.
Privacy advocates oppose drones for civilian use, saying they can too easily be used to snoop on law-abiding citizens, not just criminals or those thought to be doing something illegal.
“This is unwise and unnecessary. â€¦ Sheriffs are supposed to be sheriffs, not the U.S. Army,” said Doug Head, a Democratic activist who closely follows Orange County politics.
Even so, drones are being deployed all over America, with at least 60 applications made to the FAA. Most are being flown along the Mexican border by law-enforcement agencies looking for people crossing illegally into the United States.
In Florida, drones are being tested by Miami-Dade Police Department. The Polk County Sheriff’s Office tried them a couple of years ago but decided they were too expensive. Williamson, who declined a request by the Orlando Sentinel to photograph the department’s drones, said the Orange County models have a wingspan of 3 to 4 feet. He said he did not know the manufacturer or model number.
The armed Predator drones flying over Pakistan and Afghanistan are somewhat larger than a two-seat, single-propeller Cessna and cost about $4 million apiece. The ones in Orange County cost $22,000 to $25,000 each, Williamson said. The money to buy them came from a grant, but he said he was not sure which program.
Although Williamson would not say exactly how the drones would be used, he wrote in an email that they might be deployed when looking for explosives, barricaded suspects and to inspect “hostile/inaccessible terrain” or at train accidents.
As for civil-rights concerns, Williamson wrote, “The OCSO has the privacy of its citizenry as a foremost concern. The device will only be put into operations on the command of the high risk incident commander.” But a concerned state Sen. Joe Negron, R-Stuart, is looking to put more drone restrictions into law.
He has introduced a bill (SB 92) for the upcoming legislative session in March to limit the use of drones only to when the federal government says a terrorist attack is imminent, to collect evidence in criminal cases after a judge issues a search warrant and during a hostage situation. “Drones are “very intrusive technology,” Negron said.
According to USA Today, nine other state Legislatures are considering placing limits on drones, too. The American Civil Liberties Union agrees that something should be done, with spokesman Baylor Johnson saying it is too easy for drones to be used for more than originally intended.
“It’s really easy to increase public surveillance. But when the inevitable problems arise, it’s much harder to bring them back,” said Johnson, based in Miami.
To get drones in the air, the Sheriff’s Office also needs the Orange County Commission to sign on before seeking the FAA’s OK. That means a presentation to the commission is likely, according to emails exchanged between the Sheriff’s Office and the county.
No date has been set, but Sheriff Jerry Demings indicated in an email to County Attorney Jeff Newton that he would prefer to answer questions in private. Demings said a staff attorney talk could to the commission. “â€¦ [A]s I see it,” Demings wrote, “this is a piece of equipment that will be used in law enforcement tactical operations to help keep our community safe by using existing technology that is used in today’s society.”
Orange spokesman Steve Triggs said Mayor Teresa Jacobs was not familiar with the drone request and would not comment.
At the same time, the FAA, at the direction of Congress and President Barack Obama, is working on rules that by 2015 would decide how drones can safely share airspace with the nearly 340,000 commercial and private planes aloft daily nationwide. Central Florida officials have volunteered for the program, but no sites have been picked, although the FAA initially expected to make the selections by December.
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