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Minnesota Community Eyes Police Drone Purchase

DJI Inspire Drone
DJI Inspire Drone
Shutterstock/Valentin Valkov
(TNS) — In a few weeks, the city of Woodbury will lay out its plans at a City Council meeting to buy and fly a drone for police and other purposes, hoping to join a growing number of municipalities that rely on drones.

If it once seemed excessive or futuristic for a suburb to fly its own unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV), that notion is quickly fading.

A number of Minnesota cities and counties now have drones that not only feed live video back to their controllers, but also use heat-seeking cameras, bright spotlights and speakers to search for people or carry out other missions. Some carry payloads, from handwritten messages to life jackets.

Drone trainer and salesman Logan Noess said he's seen a rapid increase in drone use and now counts Eden Prairie, Edina, Crystal, Coon Rapids, Golden Valley, Plymouth and a host of other cities and counties among those he's either sold gear to or helped train.

"It's been growing quite a bit," said Noess.

Just a little over a year ago, 6-year-old Ethan Haus went missing with his dog in a cornfield near Becker, Minn. It wasn't local law enforcement, but a private citizen who used his drone with thermal imaging capabilities, who located Ethan, who was safely rescued. The story was widely covered by state media, and the Sherburne County Sheriff's Office said afterward that it would buy its own drone. Noess said several agencies in the area now have UAVs, including neighboring Big Lake, Minn., which got a new drone this week.

Most departments aren't interested in a drone unless it has a thermal imaging camera, said Noess, who owns Plymouth-based Vertex Unmanned Solutions. The FLIR camera, the acronym for Forward Looking Infrared, can't see through walls or heavy leaf cover, but can otherwise search open areas far more quickly than on-the-ground searches.

The drones also have some level of artificial intelligence, flying themselves around obstacles and above ground while also following instructions from a pilot.

"Before you had to have a highly skilled person to fly the drone, now the drone flies itself. You just tell it where to go," said Noess.

In just the last year or so in Minnesota and nearby, drones have helped search-and-rescue operations save not only Ethan Haus, but also vulnerable adults, lost hunters, swamped kayakers and disoriented car crash victims who leave their vehicle and don't know where they are.

The rapid adoption of drone technology was one of the primary reasons the Minnesota ACLU lobbied for restrictions on their use, said policy director Julia Decker.

"Part of the concern with something like a drone or some of these other new and evolving technologies is that you might never know about it, because they have the potential to be used secretly, without anyone's notice," she said.

The ACLU supported the passage in May 2020 of a new state law that requires a public comment period and the crafting of a written policy before a city can purchase a drone. The law, which went into effect on Aug. 1, carries other restrictions on the drone's use, including the need for a warrant for some searches.

"These are highly mobile, potentially invasive technologies that can be used to covertly surveille people," she said. "The idea is you want there to be transparency; you want there to be oversight."

It's still early in the drone era, but at least one awkward and potentially invasive use took place last summer, when police spied on nude sunbathers at Theodore Wirth Regional Park. A woman who was sunbathing topless in a remote area of the park was cited for indecent exposure, and learned from Golden Valley police that she was spotted by police using a drone camera.

The citation was quickly followed by a Park Board committee making moves to end ticketing of topless women on park property.

As drone use has intensified, other concerns have surfaced. The Department of Natural Resources has warned drone pilots to stay away from forest fires because they can interfere with firefighting operations from suppression aircraft.

And the FAA said it gets 100 reports per month nationwide of unmanned aerial sightings near airports and planes. It has issued stern warnings to drone pilots to stay away from airports, planes and helicopters, saying infractions can lead to stiff penalties and jail time.

In Woodbury, police Cmdr. John Altman said the department's drone is most likely to be used for search and rescue.

"Getting a UAS in the air quickly to locate a missing person — especially in the winter months — can save precious time," he said by e-mail. It could also be used for determining the size of fires, infrastructure inspection, and making videos to promote the city's parks, he added.

Since Woodbury is one of the first cities to buy a drone after passage of the state's new drone law, it's required to hold a public comment period, which got underway in December. A presentation planned for the Jan. 27 City Council meeting will share a summary of public comments.

The city plans to spend $39,000 for its drone, a DJI Matrice 300 RTK with a flight time of 55 minutes, high-quality video and swappable batteries to allow sustained use, said Altman.

©2020 the Star Tribune, Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.