(TNS) — When five teenagers ran from police a few hours before dawn in Saugatuck a few weeks ago, Westport police turned to their newest crime-fighting tool, the drone.
“I (flew) over the marshland to see if anyone was there,” said police Capt. Ryan Paulsson, a certified drone pilot. “The vegetation is high enough that you can’t really see in.”
Police said the teens drove a stolen SUV into a police car after breaking into vehicles around the residential neighborhood.
Federal Aviation Administration rules treat Paulsson just like any other commercial drone operator, and prohibit flights before dawn. So he waited for sunrise to launch the drone, which has four rotors, is the size of a pizza delivery box and half the weight of a gallon of water.
Police found the suspects with traditional policing tools: sniffing dogs, a police patrol boat and thermal imaging devices. But drones are becoming an increasingly important tool for law enforcement.
“In the crawl-walk-run stage, we’re crawling, and moving to walking,” Paulsson said. “It’s a new technology to law enforcement ... we don’t want to move too too fast with it.”
The drone industry and the rules that govern it are also moving slowly.
The state Legislature considered a bill last year backed by Berlin police that would have allowed cops to fly drones equipped with lethal weapons. The proposal snagged national headlines — no other state allows lethal drones — and died in committee.
“This was originally a good bill to protect communities from unwarranted police drone surveillance and prevent police from weaponizing drones,” said David McGuire, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Connecticut, in a May 1 statement. “The ACLU (supports) protecting people from unwarranted drone surveillance, but opposes the amendment to allow police to equip drones with lethal and ‘less-lethal’ weapons.”
Paulsson said Westport police don’t currently need those abilities.
“I don’t plan on putting any attachments at this point,” Paulsson said. “This is purely for documenting scenes, search and rescue and public safety.”
Some Connecticut companies are positioning for a drone boom.
“We envision a future where every squad car in America has a drone integrated into its computer system,” said Paul Ouellette, a spokesman for a West Haven-based distributor Drone USA. “At present, the drone industry is in infancy. (Police) departments are just learning how drones can make their work simpler and safer.”
This summer, the company flew “quadcopter” and airplane-type drones in demonstrations to police departments in Trumbull and on Jennings Beach in Fairfield.
Drone USA hopes to get a foothold in the Connecticut and New Jersey markets by selling and servicing drones like the DJI Phantom 4 that Paulsson flies. Stamford police use a slightly older model. They retail for between $800 and $1,400.
“The departments we encounter seem to be at different stages of interest,” Ouellette said. “For example, some departments are experimenting with DJI products; others tend to favor more sophisticated U.S. manufactured products.”
Like any novel technology, the drone industry faces a novel set of problems.
In August, the U.S. military stopped using DJI drones, which are made in China, due to concern their data might not be secure. Documents posted online alleged data was shared with the Chinese government, and immigration officials started an investigation.
DJI Ltd. said in a statement that it doesn’t look at flight logs, photos or video “unless customers actively upload and share them with us,” the Associated Press reported in December.
Flying and the Fourth Amendment
Privacy and other civil rights concerns persist.
Without additional legislation, there’s no definite rule prohibiting Westport police from flying their drone cameras over people’s houses, according to a 2014 study by the Connecticut General Assembly’s Legislative Program Review and Investigations Committee.
U.S. courts have never defined exactly how far above the ground private property ends and the so-called “public highway” of the navigable skies begins. The Supreme Court has yet to take up a drone case.
“There is a place for drones in the police department, but they have to be used in accordance with the Fourth Amendment,” which protects against unreasonable search and seizure, McGuire said.
In the year or so that Westport police have used a drone, it’s mainly flown at scenes of fatal or serious accidents, Paulsson said. Where a fire truck ladder can get an aerial shot of a car crash, a drone is safer and quicker. When a worker fell off shaky scaffolding, a drone allowed police to assess the top of the structure without risking a fall.
But Paulsson said he can imagine expanding the drone’s capabilities eventually, perhaps adding thermal imaging and flying at night — abilities that could have simplified the search for the five teen suspects in Saugatuck.
Much of that could happen without new legislation. All Paulsson has to do to fly at night, over people, or higher than the standard limit of 400 feet, is to craft a reasonable safety plan and submit it to the FAA for a geographically specific exemption.
For now, Paulsson is focused on the basics. He wants two more cops to pass the FAA’s remote pilot exam, to increase the department’s pilot’s roster to five. That means learning airspace rules, atmospheric pressure science and airport radio tower communication.
“It’s not an easy exam,” he said.
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