Friday, March 10, 2017

Sheriff blasts Federal Aviation Administration for Super Bowl’s drone flights while county waits for approval

Grand Forks County Sheriff Deputy Lee Mewes

GRAND FORKS — The Grand Forks County sheriff wants to know why the Federal Aviation Administration hasn’t approved a waiver for law enforcement to fly drones anywhere in the country while it took only weeks to give a company permission to fly drones during the Super Bowl’s halftime show.

“During the daytime, we can fly anywhere in the nation,” Sheriff Bob Rost said. “All of our pilots are FAA-certified pilots. They are not amateurs flying UAS.”

Grand Forks County is home to the Northeast Region Unmanned Aircraft Systems Unit, which is staffed by members of the Grand Forks Police Department, the Grand Forks County Sheriff’s Department, the UND Police Department and the Cass County Sheriff’s Department.

The unit has permission from the FAA to operate drones at night for three years in 18 counties in northeast North Dakota, though Rost said his department may be called to other parts of the country to assist agencies that may need drone support.

He gave the Dakota Access Pipeline protests as an example. The department was called to help, but it could not fly drones at night in central North Dakota.

Rost said his department has contacted the FAA numerous times but has not heard a response regarding the request.

Deputy Al Frazier planned to ask FAA Administrator Michael Huerta during a panel discussion in Dallas on unmanned aircraft to give priority to emergency responders when it came to approving waivers to fly drones for commercial purposes. Particularly, Frazier wanted the FAA to approve a waiver submitted by his agency more than six months ago to fly drones at night anywhere in the country.

Huerta did not speak during the panel, FAA spokeswoman Elizabeth Cory said, but an FAA speaker took Frazier’s information and promised to research the issue.

Rost called the delays “inordinate and inappropriate” and criticized the FAA for approving a request by technology giant Intel to fly 300 drones at the Super Bowl last month. The drones had LED lights that created illuminated designs for Lady Gaga’s performance.

Intel needed permission from the FAA to fly the drones above NRG Stadium in Houston, and Rost said in his statement it took less than six weeks to process and approve the flight.

The approval of the flight during Lady Gaga’s performance sends a message that “the Super Bowl halftime entertainment is more important than public safety,” Rost said.

“We’re talking a public safety issue versus a show,” he said. “It is hard for me to comprehend how public safety could be perceived as less important than the entertainment industry.”

Rost said he hopes the FAA will prioritize public safety, especially for law enforcement agencies that choose to go the extra mile, such as having their pilots FAA-certified.

“We are doing this thing the right way,” he said of the drone unit. “We just don’t joke around with it. It is a very serious thing for us.”


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