FAA Nixes Unmanned Surveillance Aircraft for U.S. Cops

Three years later and the refusal to allow U.S. police forces such as the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department to take advantage of small and lightweight unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) for aerial surveillance of potential crime scenes still rankles.

by / June 9, 2009

Photo: The MQ-9 Reaper is an unmanned aerial vehicle developed by General Atomics Aeronautical Systems for use by the United States Air Force, the United States Navy, and the British Royal Air Force.

Three years later and the refusal to allow U.S. police forces such as the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department to take advantage of small and lightweight unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) for aerial surveillance of potential crime scenes still rankles.

"The FAA is essentially trying to scare people into not using these devices or to require stricter authorization. But that policy exceeds their authority granted by Congress," stated Tim Adelman an aviation lawyer who is currently lobbying the Federal Aviation Administration on behalf of certain law enforcement bodies -- so far with limited success -- to drop its legal veto.

"We are seeing better UAS products that are functional and can be used by law enforcement," he continued.

Nevertheless, the FAA is maintaining its prohibition of the UAS for general use by public bodies except for testing and temporary emergencies such as brush fires -- at least until all of its safety concerns are ironed out according to spokesperson Les Dorr. He told Digital Communities that every so often a police force will determine on its own that it can ignore the FAA ban and start using UAS for investigations. "Some law enforcement departments feel they can do this for whatever reason -- either because they are not familiar with the process or they don't feel they have to go through the process [of FAA authorization]," he explained.

Also known as unmanned aircraft vehicles (UAVs) and drones, the UAS originated in the military as pilotless vehicles such as the Predator and the Global Hawk and are designed to unleash firepower from the air on an enemy force on the ground with the human operator of the remote control system situated at a safe distance.

Now, hundreds of companies from Boeing at the high end to small out-of-a-garage outfits have developed a more benign and lighter version in the form of products which typically carry digital and video cameras onboard for surveillance from the air.

Advocates have cited a variety of applications including observing signs of activity inside and outside a house or building during a hostage taking, the hunt for stolen vehicles across a large area and the tracking of a burgeoning forest fire or flood.

Sergeant Brian Muller at the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department maintains that the UAS is ideal in search and rescue operations for missing children.

A search and rescue operation relying on a lot of visual information provided by digital and video cameras inside a UAS can cover a lot of ground in a large geographical area like LA County in a short period of time. This can "mean the difference between somebody living or dying" in the process, Sergeant Muller said.

He pointed to some contradictions in how remote control devices are regulated today in the U.S.
"If you are Joe Citizen, you can go down to the hobby store and buy a remote control airplane that you can fly in a park. But if you put a police uniform on, the feds want to step in and get in the way," he said.

Sergeant Muller added that the UASs which can cost in the vicinity of $50,000 are a bargain compared to purchasing a helicopter which is generally priced in the millions.

But until serious technical deficiencies in the UAS are solved, they will be kept out of U.S. skies, stated Les Dorr at the FAA.

"There is nothing to our knowledge and no UAS technology at this time that would allow unmanned aircraft to meet the same 'see

and avoid' [regulatory technical] standard that manned aircraft have to operate under," he told Digital Communities.

"Pilots must maintain vigilance during flight to avoid other pilots within their air space by constantly scanning for other aircraft," Dorr added.

But Tim Adelman countered that police forces in the U.S. have previously acquired helicopters from the U.S. military without having to go through the FAA's air worthiness authorization process. Indeed, he stated, it is possible for a public agency to operate a UAS in compliance with all current FAA regulations and orders without the federal agency's certification of authorization.

One of them, continued Adelman, is that the UAS must be kept away from the airspace above airports where air craft are required to carry equipment such as transponders and two way radios to be able to communicate with air controllers on the ground and other aircraft nearby.

Adelman added that police officers can easily meet the FAA's see-and-avoid standards when the UAS is remotely operated in the air during an investigation.

"The UAS is operated in close proximity to the officer. So they can see the aircraft, see what is around the aircraft and avoid coming into collision with other aircraft or property."

Photo by James Gordon. CC Attribution 2.0 Generic

Paul Weinberg Contributing Writer