Drone usage by local police, fire departments quickly increasing

WASHINGTON — Approximately a dozen police, fire and emergency agencies surrounding Washington, D.C. are using drones to capture criminal suspects and fight fires, but the unmanned aircraft systems also are sparking privacy concerns and legislation.

At least 347 state and local police, sheriff, fire and emergency units in the United States have acquired drones, according to an April report by Center for the Study of the Drone at Bard College.

“More and more departments in the public safety space, particularly in law enforcement, are acquiring drones for a range of operations,” says Dan Gettinger, co-director of the research group.

Some departments, including the Loudoun County, Va., Sheriff’s Office use professional-grade unmanned aircraft systems. According to the Bard report, the Loudoun agency uses the Indago model, made by Lockheed Martin, with a price tag in the $25,000 range.

“Most departments are acquiring the same systems that consumers might use — the DJI Phantom, the Parrot drones — for hobby purposes or recreational flying,” said Gettinger. The DJI and Parrot systems generally cost less than $2,000.

Public safety agencies have to follow the same process as drone owners that want to use the aircraft for business purposes.

“They have to take lessons on how to fly the drone, and the proper procedures, said Gettinger. “They have to go through the application process with the FAA to obtain a permit, and they have to keep records of the type of operations they’re conducting.”

As emerging technology, departments are able to tailor drone usage for their needs.

Recently, the Stafford County Sheriff’s Office used drones twice while pursuing suspects, while Cecil County Sheriff’s Office used a drone to find $400,000 worth of stolen construction equipment.

In other parts of the country, drones have been used to locate teenage runaways and identify illegal fireworks displays during Fourth of July holiday.

“Public safety departments acquire these drones for different reasons, and they could be using them for different applications,” said Gettinger.

Currently, the FAA has strict rules for operating a drone legally, including distance from airports, flying under 400 feet, during the day, within sight of the operator and not over a crowd of people.

“Many police departments have applied for waivers, so they’re able to fly at night,” said Gettinger.

Most of the drones in use are outfitted with cameras.

“Drones are a very dynamic and versatile platform — they can carry a lot of different equipment. That’s part of the appeal of drones.”

In addition, it’s feasible departments would want to use drones in cases where human officers would be at risk.

“It’s possible over the coming years these payloads could evolve,” he said.

“A number of states have banned police departments from arming drones, or using drones for purposes like surveillance or intruding on a person’s private property without a warrant,” said Gettinger.

Virginia departments using drones include the following:

  • Albemarle County Sheriff’s Office;
  • Bedford County Fire Department;
  • Fairfax County Fire and Rescue;
  • Harrisonburg Police Department;
  • Henrico County;
  • Loudoun County Sheriff’s Office;
  • Russell County Sheriff’s Office;
  • Stafford County Sheriff’s Office;
  • York County Emergency Management Agency.

Maryland agencies using drones include the Cecil County Sheriff’s Office and Montgomery County Fire and Rescue Department.

Drones cannot be legally flown in D.C. or within 15 miles of Reagan National Airport, according to FAA restrictions.

Neal Augenstein

Neal Augenstein has been a general assignment reporter with WTOP since 1997. He says he looks forward to coming to work every day, even though that means waking up at 3:30 a.m.

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