The buzzword is ... drones [Bristol Herald Courier, Va.]
(Bristol Herald Courier (VA) Via Acquire Media NewsEdge) Feb. 17--LEBANON, Va. -- Sheriff Steve Dye of Russell County is like any head of law enforcement. He wants to grow a sizable advantage on lawbreakers while keeping his deputies out of harm's way. One way to rise above dangerous situations, literally, is to have an officer operate one of two airborne drones purchased last year.
According to the Virginia Sheriff's Association, Dye's department is the only one in the commonwealth to have these mini aircraft equipped with high-definition cameras and motion-capture technology, ready to launch and hover into operations such as drug raids or finding missing persons.
There is no law on the books in Virginia that regulates the use of these remotely controlled devices and their eyes in the sky, most of which can be operated from a cell phone or iPad. The Federal Aviation Administration also has no rules governing their use. The government or an even an individual can pretty much use these devices when and where they want.
However, the FAA announced last week they are seeking proposals from states, universities or other public entities to provide sites around the country that can be used for drone testing and the eventual development of rules governing their use.
Meanwhile in Virginia, some state lawmakers are calling for a temporary moratorium on the use of drones. They want to use that time to review the machines, their operations in the field and their impact on privacy rights while giving police another technology tool to catch the crooks.
Line of duty
In the 477 square miles that Steve Dye's Russell County Sheriff's Office must patrol, deputies have rough, mountainous topography to cover. If someone were to become lost in these hills, Dye said, he believes he has a fighting chance to find them using his drone.
"There are some places here you can't reach with an all-terrain vehicle," Dye said. "And if you can reach it by foot, that person who's lost is still in a bad spot. What if you were able to send a unit up in the air that could pinpoint that location and save precious time to help that person This is just one way we could use these devices to help our citizens and aid in the operations we do, just making them better."
After researching drones and how they could be used in the field, the Sheriff's Office invested more than $600 in two AR.Drone units last August. Dye said the machines, with abilities to zoom in with lenses and hover with just a whisper of a sound, have a hard frame that can withstand punishment and are ideal for surveillance and search.
"Just think about tactical situations and ask yourself 'what are all the advantages I could think of.' The possibilities are endless for our department," the sheriff said.
"You are talking about protecting the lives of people, our officers and our residents who are at risk," he said. "You could fly this over a mountain and be able to locate things or people. It could enter a crime scene without contaminating things like scent or where things are laying. With the proper permits, they could assist us in drug operations. I have to be careful about what I can say about how I would want to use them, but just getting us higher with eyes that can see from above at angles we regularly could not have, it just give us a tremendous advantage out there.
"What officer would not want to see what is around the corner If a bad guy is there and you have something that can save that officer's life and the lives of bystanders by using this in the air, it just seems like a win-win. This is all new technology and I'm sure there will be bigger and better things to make drones more adaptable for law enforcement, but we feel like they can be used right now to help our community and our officers."
Air space rules
FAA Administrator Michael Huerta wants to establish six test environments to study how unmanned crafts will mix with air traffic control conditions and different environments.
"The test sites will ... inform the agency as we develop standards for certifying unmanned aircraft and determine necessary air traffic requirements," Huerta said in a written announcement released Feb. 14.
Also in the announcement, Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood said: "This research will give us valuable information about how best to ensure the safe introduction of this advanced technology into our nation's skies."
The lack of federal law is just one factor in the Virginia General Assembly's move to place a moratorium on drone use -- until July 2015 unless a "major disaster" occurs or an Amber Alert is posted. In those cases, police drones may be used when "necessary to protect life, health, or property" in a search and rescue operation, according to the wording in the legislation.
Both the House of Delegates and Senate have passed House Bill 2012 and Senate Bill 1331 overwhelmingly, 83-16 in the House and 36-2 in the Senate, and it awaits Gov. Bob McDonnell's signature.
According to reports in the Richmond Times Dispatch, not only is Virginia the first state to consider drone-based legislation, but the city of Charlottesville, Va., has become the first locality in the nation to ban the use of drones inside its borders. The Charlottesville City Council approved the ban earlier this month.
At the First Amendment Center at Vanderbilt University, Executive Director Gene Policinski said the debate over drones is similar to a fight that occurred 120 years ago when lawmakers and citizens argued over the use of photography, telephones and newspapers in the general population and how those things might invade their privacy.
"People thought that things said or done inside your home would be heard and violated," Policiniski said. "It was terribly invasive, people thought, and we had to sort through wiretapping and set up procedures for legal use to protect the public, so there are a lot of parallels here.
"These are fears we've had to face before," Policinski said. "These are our freedoms that we are talking about. Things that concern our lives deserve scrutiny before they are acted out. To the extent that government can identify us more easily and track us more easily, we lose some measure of anonymous speech.
"A lot of new technology is taking away our privacy, from Google Maps to surveillance cameras posted on (every) block," he said. "There is nothing inherently threatening to the First Amendment with these. They don't silence anyone or keep you from speaking. But there is always a concern that the more that the government can identify a speaker and establish when and where they are and who they associate with, we lose a sort of practical obscurity."
Devices like a GPS location unit on a car have been ruled invasive in the courts because of the tracking technology, Policiniski said, but drone technology has shown in its infancy some positive aspects to its existence. Still, those same components that make drones practical also make them dangerously intrusive.
"It can help us locate children who are lost," he said. "They can fly over traffic conditions or survey an accident or look at the front of a dam that might be ready to break -- without harming any humans.
"But they also can be used for covert surveillance in the hands of the authorities," Policinski said. "Think of how Orwellian it is that you could be followed everywhere by a sort of eye in the sky you can't see. Combine that with facial recognition technology and everyone you speak to could be identified by authorities and have no privacy once you stepped outside your door. That's house arrest in some countries. It can be used for good, but it also has the potential to be abused."
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