Ulster County Sheriff Paul Van Blarcum says his department is ready to join the growing list of police agencies which employ aerial drones for everything from reconstructing traffic accidents to resolving armed standoffs.
“We’re looking into it,” said Van Blarcum this week. “I definitely think it’s something we could use.”
Van Blarcum said the department’s interest in drone technology stemmed from an incident in October when officers responding to a domestic violence call in New Paltz were met with a barrage of high-powered rifle fire. Police returned fire, set up a perimeter and called in tactical teams and a crisis negotiator. Unable to make contact with the suspect, Van Blarcum said, officers used a borrowed quadcopter drone equipped with a camera to peer through the windows. The drone’s camera identified the gunman lying on the floor bleeding, apparently wounded by police gunfire. Cops moved in, secured the gunman and administered first aid. Van Blarcum credits the drone with saving the 60 year old gunman’s life.
“If we hadn’t been able to see in there he probably would have bled to death,” said Van Blarcum. “Because we weren’t just going to go charging in. We would’ve waited and tried to figure out another way.”
Van Blarcum said two subordinates are tasked with researching police drones and developing a detailed policy on when, where and how it will be used. The policy, in turn will be evaluated by the Federal Aviation Administration which must approve any commercial or government application of drone technology (recreational drone users are subject to a much simpler registration process). The FAA licenses specifies when and where the drone may be used and for what purposes.
Dan Gettinger, director of Bard College’s Center for the Study of the Drone, said more and more police agencies were willing to jump regulatory hurdles as they sought to add unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV) to their toolbox.
“Law enforcement agencies around the world are embracing UAV technology,” said Gettinger. “In the U.S. there are some regulatory roadblocks, but that hasn’t stopped police around the country from testing them and eventually bringing them into service.”
The U.S. Department of Homeland Security has used long-range, high-flying Predator drones to monitor the nation’s borders for more than a decade. On at least 500 occasions, DHS’ Predators have been loaned out to other police agencies for surveillance purposes. In 2012, a North Dakota rancher became the first person to be prosecuted using drone-obtained evidence after local authorities used a DHS drone to capture images of stolen cattle on his land.
As the technology becomes better and cheaper and the FAA more accommodating, smaller police departments are buying their own UAVs. Typical police drones are small quadcopters equipped with advanced camera systems that can hover silently while capturing high-definition images of license plates from 1,000 feet away or spot a suspect hiding in a building, using heat-sensing forward-looking infrared radar.
Accident reconstruction, done faster
Andrea Fangster is the senior marketing coordinator for Aeryon Labs Inc., based in Waterloo, Ontario. Aeryon manufactures the popular Skyranger quadcopter. Versions of the small UAV designed for police and military use run about $70,000 and come equipped with a variety of photographic “payloads.” Fangster said that the company- which markets the Skyranger in 35 countries had seen a recent surge in interest by U.S. police agencies.
“The FAA put regulations for law enforcement [UAVs] in place three years ago but at the time the budgets weren’t there for it,” said Fangster. “Now it seems like the budget cycles have caught up and we’re seeing much more interest.”
Fangster said that while camera-equipped drones had proven useful in search-and-rescue and standoff situations, the most common law enforcement application of the technology was the more mundane and much more common process of traffic accident reconstruction. In any traffic accident, police must take detailed measurements and other data to figure out what happened. Officers working with tape measures and handheld cameras might take hours to carry out a thorough accident investigation before reopening a roadway. With a drone hovering overhead taking pictures, Fangster said, the process can be completed and the road reopened in a fraction of the time.
“Accident reconstruction is something that police do all the time and there’s a real benefit to the public in reducing the time it takes,” said Fangster. “So, often we see the traffic division being the way [drones] get into the budget, then they’ll expand them to other areas of the department.”
While drones may be helpful to police, there remains widespread public skepticism about the silently hovering eyes in the sky. This summer when a Lake Katrine man was on trial for using a civilian drone outside a Town of Ulster medical building, Ulster County Assistant District Attorney Tom Colonna summed up “drone anxiety” by telling the jury that the machines “put human eyes in a place, like 30 feet in the air outside an exam room window, where human eyes normally wouldn’t be.”
Ulster County District Attorney Holley Carnright said he sees no problem with police use of UAVs to gather evidence in the same way that manned helicopters do now. The case law regarding aerial surveillance was settled decades ago when the Supreme Court ruled that viewing objects in plain view from the air but not the ground (like a marijuana patch hidden behind a high wall) did not constitute a “search” that cops need a warrant to perform.
“As far as civil liberties, I don’t think it changes much from our end,” said Carnright. “I’m not nearly as concerned about law enforcement applications as about some of the potential civilian applications of this technology.”
But Gettinger said that civilian unease with the idea of drone-toting cops was likely to grow as more departments acquire the technology and drone-assisted arrests and investigations become more commonplace. That anxiety, he said, was based largely on the covert nature of UAV surveillance compared with traditional forms of policing from the air. Indeed, in promoting the Skyranger, a key selling point for Aeryon is its ability to monitor locations not just from a distance but to do so unbeknownst to surveillance targets — something that’s harder to do with a helicopter or fixed-wing aircraft.
“The police response is that [UAVs] are the same as any other aircraft and shouldn’t be treated any differently,” said Gettinger. “But the fact is a UAV can do things that traditional aircraft can’t.”