Wednesday, September 20, 2017

Streetsboro, Portage County, Ohio: Police drone program taking flight

Though they’re still learning to fly, Streetsboro police plan to take to the skies over the Gateway City soon with an unmanned aerial vehicle.

The program currently is awaiting Federal Aviation Administration approval and for an officer to take his pilot’s exam, according to Police Chief Darin Powers.

Powers said there is no other program like his in Portage County, though other cities and counties in the U.S. have used UAVs, typically called “drones,” to take aerial photos, locate missing people, track criminal suspects and investigate crime scenes or fires from above.

The UAV also will not be used for everyday patrol purposes or sent up “just for fun,” Powers said, adding that he wanted to be transparent with citizens about the potential uses for the technology.

“We will have to have a specific purpose to put it in the air,” he said.

Powers also said it will help police diagram traffic crashes, investigate suspected explosive devices, marijuana grows or meth labs without risking the health and safety of officers and their K-9 partners.

“We’ve never had the ability to do overhead aerial photos of crashes and crime scenes,” he said.

UAVs can go where officers on the ground cannot, and cost far less money than a helicopter or light plane to put in the sky. Still, specialized law enforcement-specific UAVs can cost anywhere from $15,000 to $100,000, Powers said.

Thinking frugally, he looked to and found a DJI Phantom 4 Pro Plus quadcopter UAV, currently top-of-the-line for hobbyists, for $1,800. Four extra batteries, an in-vehicle battery charger, a video headset and other accessories brought the total to slightly less than $2,500.

Powers is following FAA regulations, so the UAV remains flightless in storage at police headquarters. The first UAV pilot on the department, Officer Scott Hermon, obtained his pilot’s license at Kent State University and will be taking his UAV test later this month, Powers said.

“Four or five” other officers will be trained for the program and take an FAA exam at a cost to the department of $150 per officer, Powers said. According to Hermon the exam is not for the faint-hearted: It consists of questions drawn from 1,300 pages of study material and documents.

The UAV has a top speed of 45 mph and a top altitude of 19,000 feet, though special permission is required to fly it that high. Its battery gives it an approximate 25- to 30-minute flight time, depending on weight, equipment and wind conditions. Built-in crash avoidance technology brings the drone immediately back to its operator if the battery goes too low, if there is danger of a collision with a stationary object or if the remote control or its signal fails during flight, Powers said.

“It’s a complicated piece of equipment, but it’s easy to use,” Hermon said.

The federal and state rules governing UAVs are many. Federal law forbids police from arming a UAV with weapons or explosives, Powers said. The UAV also must remain at or below 400 feet and unless granted a waiver by the FAA, may only fly during daylight hours. If using the headset, the pilot must have another observer keep two eyes on the UAV at all times, Hermon said.

Streetsboro’s UAV will be registered with the FAA, marked with a registration number and police decals reading “Streetsboro Police” on three sides. It will be covered under the city’s insurance policy in the event of a crash or property damage, he said.

Powers said he plans in the future to seek a waiver allowing the UAV to fly at night with upgraded infrared photographic abilities and safety lights that must be visible up to three miles away in the dark.

State and federal law treats the UAV as an aircraft, which means serious legal consequences for anyone who tries to interfere with its flight.

“It is illegal to shoot it down,” Powers said.

A log will be kept of every time the UAV is deployed, whether for training, searches, at crime scenes or simply for public demonstrations at Family Days or a police department open house. That log also will be a public record, reviewable by any citizen who wishes to see it, Powers said. The department’s “Unmanned Aerial System (UAS) Operations” policy No. 606 also may be reviewed by the public.

“If we’re training, we will only do so over city property or with the property owner’s permission only,” he recently told Streetsboro City Council.

Streetsboro Fire Chief Robert Reinholz said he’s also interested in the technology, but told council he currently can’t spare any firefighters to fly one.

“Fourteen firefighters are required for a building of 2,000 square feet, and we can put six on an engine,” Reinholz said. “I don’t have time to launch a drone.”

The UAV’s infrared viewer would be invaluable to detect “hot spots” from the air above fire scenes or when fighting large commercial structure fires, for urban search and rescue during a disaster and at hazmat scenes, Reinholz said.

Powers said he realizes that for some people, there are “negative connotations” to the term “drone,” which most associate with military use for surveillance or strikes on terrorists.

He said he welcomes feedback from Streetsboro citizens and other residents concerned about their privacy rights. Having strict policies for the UAV’s use in place will help protect those rights, Powers said.

“If a situation arises where it’s possible we may be intruding on someone’s privacy rights, we’re going to need a search warrant or a constitutional reason not to have one” to use the UAV, he said. “We’re going to use it for the right purposes, and have a policy in place that will prohibit us from using it in any way that would violate someone’s rights.”

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