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In 2011, four deputies in Buchanan County were gunned down in a wooded area where spotting the sniper was difficult from the ground.
Every day, police enter situations where they rely on their line of sight to spot danger. Some law enforcement agencies are seeing the need for an “eye in the sky” to watch over officers.
Drone aircraft — also known as unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) or unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV) — are poised to move from military to civilian use soon.
However, legislation that passed both houses of the General Assembly and awaits the governor’s signature would place a moratorium on law enforcement use of drones until July 1, 2015.
Grayson County Sheriff Richard Vaughan is one of the proponents of using this technology.
“One of the first things that came to mind when I first saw this high-tech piece of equipment was the shooting incident that took place in Buchanan County,” Vaughan said. “If law enforcement would’ve had access to a UAS, the outcome may have been different.”
A new coalition of law enforcement officials and makers of unmanned drones is pushing for Virginia to embrace the use of these unmanned aircraft for search and rescue, suspect pursuits, surveillance or keeping an eye on officers in potentially dangerous situations.
The Virginia Technology Alliance for Public Safety (VATAPS) is working to promote the economic development and public safety benefits of unmanned aircraft. The members are up against a public perception of these hovering remote-operated machines as intrusions into privacy at best or, at worst, robotic drones delivering death from above.
This stigma could be impeding economic progress and public safety, says the alliance, which includes the head of the Virginia Sheriff’s Association, members of other police organizations and representatives of aeronautics technology companies.
The formation of VATAPS follows the passage of legislation by the Virginia General Assembly this year — House Bill 2012 and Senate Bill 1331 — which places a two year-moratorium on the use of unmanned aircraft. The legislation allows an exception for search and rescue operations, “but fails to recognize other public safety applications and embrace the economic benefits of promoting responsible UAS-related research and development in the state,” according to a VATAPS news release.
Vaughan said he can see much potential in unmanned aircraft.
“Probably the most obvious use for a UAS in law enforcement is for search and rescue operations, but there are countless other uses for these high-tech assets.
“The use of a UAS can provide immediate situational awareness to first responders” and would provide “a safer and more economical way to conduct marijuana eradication efforts,” Vaughan said.
Drones would “enhance the ability to gather information on targets of a high-risk search warrant before a tactical team is deployed. The UAS would also be a very helpful tool in gathering intelligence in narcotics investigations.”
Vaughan doesn’t believe it would be feasible for every law enforcement agency to bear the cost of purchasing an unmanned aircraft. “However, I don’t think it will be long before we have access to a regional UAS that could be utilized by several agencies.”
The Federal Aviation Administration requires police departments to undergo training and prove proficiency in remotely flying the drones before they will be granted licenses to operate them. The FAA has authorized only a few cities in the U.S. to fly drones so far.
According to FAA regulations, government agencies are allowed to operate small drones weighing up to 25 pounds, and they must fly no more than 400 feet off the ground and must remain within sight of the operator. Larger military-style drones will only be used by border patrol and customs agents.
The legislation awaits the signature of Gov. Bob McDonnell, and the alliance is hoping to convince the governor to amend the bills to allow more public safety uses for drones.
“The safety of public officers in Virginia and across the country is of paramount importance. There are examples where officers have been endangered but could have been protected by the use of UAVs,” says John Jones, executive director of the Virginia Sheriffs Association and member of the alliance. “Any Virginia law on UAVs needs to address existing emergency situations and other non-emergency applications. It is imperative that Gov. Bob McDonnell take a very close look at this issue and its implications before he agrees to sign the bill into law.”
The Russell County Sheriff’s Department already has purchased two drones, and will be unable to use them if the bill passes.
Limitations — such as requiring a search warrant to surveil someone or collect evidence for a criminal investigation — are needed to protect Virginians’ privacy, argued Del. Todd Gilbert (R-Shenandoah County), who also sponsored a drone-regulation bill this year.
Gilbert’s legislation also would require agencies to receive permission from state or local governments before using drones.
But law enforcement groups have said rules like waiting for warrants would prevent them from using the technology to apprehend criminals and protect their officers and the public, especially in emergencies, such as an active shooter.
“The only problem the sheriff’s office has is putting stipulations on when we can use it,” said Charlotte County Sheriff Thomas Jones, speaking to the General Assembly on behalf of the Virginia Sheriffs’ Association. “Sometimes we don’t have time to get a search warrant.”
The legislation also sets up auditing of drone programs so the public can find out where, when and how they are used, and if they are effective. Additional safeguards regulate image retention and aim to protect privacy.
Given the national debate about the use of armed military drones, the thought of police using drones in the U.S. is worrying for some.
“I don’t believe the people of Virginia want these robots out there prying into their private lives,” said Sen. Donald McEachin, (D-Henrico County), who filed one of the moratorium bills.
“All of us are about to sacrifice our privacy to this new technology,” said Claire Guthrie Gastañaga, president of the Virginia American Civil Liberties Union. “The Fourth Amendment should be the floor to protect our privacy, not the ceiling.”
Using drones to attack alleged terrorists has been the subject of congressional hearings, and the debate was further fueled on Feb. 4, when a confidential U.S. Justice Department document outlining the legal justification for targeted killings of U.S. citizens overseas was leaked to NBC News. The document sets forth a legal framework for when the U.S. government can use lethal force against U.S. citizens located overseas who are a “senior operational leader” of a terrorist organization.
But supporters of the new technology see these unarmed drones more like flying cameras than robot assassins — more like R2-D2, less like the Terminator.
These versions of drones differ from the military variety. They do not carry missiles, for example.
Instead, they often carry digital, infrared and thermal cameras; and license plate recognition software. Soon, they could feature facial recognition technology.
“The advantages and uses of unmanned aircraft systems for public safety are greatly misunderstood and often falsely associated with military drones,” says Robert Fitzgerald, president of Bosh Global Services in Newport News and member of the alliance. “We are developing small, lightweight UAS that can aid in assessing natural disasters, fires, hazardous spills and other dangerous situations remotely without putting additional lives at risk.”
Drones have been used to catch speeders in Texas and a SWAT team in North Dakota used a Predator military drone borrowed from the Department of Homeland Security to aid in an arrest. More often, the technology is used to find missing kids or spot forest fires, for example.
In addition to the public safety benefits, VATAPS also is promoting the economic impacts of unmanned aircraft research and development.
The FAA has announced plans to designate six test sites for development of unmanned aircraft. Virginia is pursuing an FAA designation as part of a coalition lead by Virginia Tech.
“This is an opportunity to bring jobs, innovation and more technology to Virginia at a time when the federal government is cutting other programs,” said Michael Toscano, president and CEO for the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International (AUVSI) in Arlington and a member of the alliance. “These are good paying jobs that will save lives, save money, as well as spawn research programs at Virginia’s colleges and universities.”
According to a VATAPS news release, a soon-to-be-released study conducted by AUVSI will show that Virginia could see 2,380 new jobs and $460 million in economic investment if the state embraces programs to research, develop and test unmanned aircraft. The study indicates many of those jobs would pay starting salaries in the $55,000 range.
“The six FAA test sites for unmanned aircraft are expected to be an economic windfall for the states that are selected,” Toscano said.
But, he cautions, “states that are advancing overly-restrictive legislation to limit the use of this technology are hurting their chances of attracting high-quality jobs.
“There is no reason we cannot responsibly advance this technology while simultaneously ensuring Americans’ rights are protected.”
Del. Ben Cline (R-Rockbridge County), who sponsored the House moratorium bill, said the legislation will not ground these projects. Private sector efforts to develop drones can continue so Virginia becomes “an industry leader of the technology as we develop public safety rules for the use of this technology simultaneously.”
The moratorium gives Virginia time to develop “reasonable and responsible regulations governing drone use,” Gastanaga said.
It does not limit “any private development or testing of drones and contains exceptions to address legitimate public safety concerns,” she said, explaining that the moratorium is to end “before the FAA is expected to open the skies to drone use by law enforcement.”
Toscano is asking Virginia officials to work together to ensure that drone legislation “doesn’t undermine the job creation potential of unmanned aircraft or their state’s ability to compete for a test site.”
VATAPS says it plans to launch an educational awareness and public information campaign as it recruits additional members.
In the meantime, the Department of Homeland Security has set up a program to help police and public safety agencies choose appropriate unmanned aircraft for their needs.
Landmark News Service contributed to this article.