Spy in the Sky: Store-bought spies in rural Va.

Russell County in Southwest Virginia is perhaps an unlikely place for the front lines of the drone debate, but the county has purchased two drones.

Editor’s note: Some drones are bigger than a jet, weaponized and used in strategic military operations. Others are smaller than a basketball, sent airborne for basic surveillance or weekend recreation.

The label “unmanned aerial vehicles,” or UAVs, is almost a catch-all term covering a wide range of devices that vary greatly in their capabilities and purposes. Yet the use of drones generally sparks intense debate, questions about security versus privacy and even fear.

In the WTOP series “Spy in the Sky,” WTOP examines the types of drones used by the U.S. military and fears about targeted killings, both at home and abroad.

Part 3: Store-bought spies in rural Virginia

LEBANON, Va. – Dozens of law enforcement agencies have applied to the Federal Aviation Administration for permission to use unmanned aerial vehicles, or drones.

The Miami-Dade Police Department has two operational drones, one of which has been deployed in a barricade situation. The Seattle Police Department had two drones before that city’s mayor and police chief agreed to shut them down over privacy concerns.

Then there’s Russell County in Southwest Virginia, perhaps an unlikely place for the front lines of the drone debate.

Fewer than 30,000 people live in the county, according to the most recent census. But last September, the Russell County Sheriff’s Department bought two drones, making it what’s believed to be the first law enforcement agency in the commonwealth to use the technology.

“We bought them from the local Verizon store,” says Steve Dye, the county’s sheriff. “Gave approximately $300 per unit.”

The devices are known as the AR.Drone quadrocopter and are available to the public. They include a forward-facing camera and a belly camera.

Operators control the device’s movement entirely through an iPhone screen that shows live pictures from the drone.

“We’re not talking about a military-type drone,” Dye says. “This could almost be referred to as a child’s toy with a camera.”

Dye says the drones interested him for use in two situations, the first being when searching for a missing person.

“It’s human nature to rush in and search that area, and typically you find them,” he says. “But if you don’t, you have contaminated the search area” for the search dog.

The second potential use is in a tactical situation, Dye says, like responding to an armed individual who has a hostage.

Dye says for a couple hundred bucks, the drones can give officers the eyes they need without putting them in the line of fire.

“It’s important to remember that we can’t use this to look anywhere that we couldn’t send a person to look,” he says.

“The whole thing is we can look without exposing the officer to risk.”

The sheriff’s department has not used either drone in an actual response.

See what one of the Russell County drones sees in the video below:

A Russell County drone demonstration:

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