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Alameda County sheriff seeks drone

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POSTED October 19, 2012 9:02 p.m.

 

OAKLAND  (AP) — The Alameda County Sheriff's Department is hoping to become one of the handful of local law enforcement agencies that have received federal clearance to use unmanned aerial drones to fight crime, a goal that already is arousing concerns among privacy advocates.

Civil liberties and privacy groups revealed Thursday that Sheriff Greg Ahern is seeking Department of Homeland Security funding to buy a small remote-controlled drone called a Dragon Fly. If the money comes through and the Federal Aviation Administration permits the department to test the device, Alameda would be the first public safety agency in California to deploy technology first developed for spying on U.S. enemies overseas.

A memo that one of Ahern's captains prepared over the summer, obtained by the Freedom of Information Act web site MuckRock, says the drone would be equipped with a long-distance camera, live video downlink and infrared sensors that could be used for monitoring bomb threats, fires, unruly crowds, search and rescue operations, and marijuana grows.

Only four local law enforcement agencies in the United States have received FAA approval to train officers, deputies and volunteer pilots to operate aerial drones, according to Don Roby, a police captain in Baltimore County, Maryland who chairs the aviation committee of the International Association of Chiefs of Police. They are in Miami, Seattle, Mesa County, Colo., and Arlington, Texas, although only the Colorado agency has permission to use them routinely, Roby said.

"There is a lot of interest in it, but more people are taking a wait-and-see-attitude," he said.

Congress has ordered the FAA to develop safely regulations that would allow both public agencies and commercial operators to fly unmanned aircraft by 2015.

Ahern's spokesman, Sgt. J.D. Nelson, told the San Francisco Chronicle (http://bit.ly/TiWMXv ) that the Dragon Fly model the department tested costs between $50,000 and $100,000 but would save money now spent on spent on sending helicopters into the sky.

The Electronic Frontier Foundation and the ACLU of Northern California want the sheriff to provide more details about why the drone is needed and how the department would use it. The San Francisco Police Department also has expressed interest in acquiring a drone, although its grant application was rejected, Electronic Frontier Foundation activist Trevor Timms said.

In some communities, the public only has learned about a local agency's plan to acquire a drone by filing Freedom of Information Act requests and then lobbying lawmakers to ask questions, Timm said.

"This is the kind of pattern we are seeing, and the most effective way to put the brakes on these projects is to get local government involved," he said.

Ben Gielow, general counsel for the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International, an unmanned trade group, said opponents of unmanned aerial vehicles should understand that battery-operated drones are incapable of traveling the long distances that would be required to follow a car or a person beyond the limited areas covered under FAA permits.

"These are not military systems that stay in the air for extended periods of time," Gielow said. "They are small systems that stay in the back of the squad car and are used like a canine unit."

The International Association of Chiefs of Police has developed model guidelines for departments planning to use drones. The guidelines include maintaining a public log of the flight hours drones put in and other steps to ensure officers are not misusing the equipment.

A an Associated Press-National Constitution Center poll released last month found that 44 percent of those surveyed supported allowing police to use drones inside the U.S., while 35 percent said they were "extremely concerned" or "very concerned" that domestic use of the technology for law enforcement surveillance would erode personal privacy.

 

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