PRESCOTT – The Yavapai County Board of Supervisors on Monday voted 3-0 to partner with Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University on an Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV) program, despite some controversy as to whether it would be used for law enforcement.
ERAU has the opportunity to receive a tiny UAV at no charge if it works with an agency that can supply real-world missions for the aircraft, the Draganflyer X-8.
The county’s Office of Emergency Management will be the primary agency in the agreement with ERAU; although the draft proposal for an agreement with the county listed several law enforcement uses for the X-8, ERAU Associate Professor of Aeronautical Science Raynald Bedard, who spoke to the Supervisors in Monday’s meeting, seemed to back away from those missions.
“This is not what I want to do,” he said. “That list came up from Yavapai County. Really, the top three priorities are (wild)fire (surveillance), search and rescue, and storm damage assessment.”
Yavapai County Sheriff’s spokesman Dwight D’Evelyn said his agency has not yet seen nor discussed the proposal.
Prescott resident Dennis DuVall was the only member of the public to speak. He expressed opposition to the project.
“I urge you to take more time to decide on the ERAU proposal,” he said. “A local government decision to enter into a drone project should not be entered into lightly.”
“It might be appropriate for the county to even consider a public hearing on the Embry-Riddle drone proposal,” he added.
Yavapai County Emergency Management Coordinator Denny Foulk said the X-8 would be a valuable tool. “I believe this device can save lives,” he said.
Supervisor Tom Thurman, District 2, did allude to a law enforcement application, though, using the example of a situation from the day before in which suspect ran after shooting at a deputy and became involved in an ensuing SWAT standoff.
“Something like this (the X-8) would be available to be instantly used,” he said. “It would have helped us greatly, because the amount of staff time that was taken out there between all the agencies was insane, to catch this one guy.”
However, Steven Mauk, director of Yavapai County Development Services, said his department would “never use it” for enforcement, such as looking into backyards for code violations.
Before the vote, the supervisors expressed their support for ERAU. Board Chairman Carol Springer, District 1, said, “We are very much aware that you are a significant contributor to the armed forces of this country, of which we are very proud.”
In the hallway, after the vote, Duval spoke to Bedard personally. “There should be public discussion about this,” he said. “They (the supervisors) don’t know anything about drones.”
“Once you guys start flying your UAV’s around, you can do anything you want. I’m not sure the public is really comfortable with that,” DuVall argued.
“That’s not true,” Bedard said. “Our intention is not to take pictures of people’s backyards. It’s to deploy (the X-8) where we have emergency situations.”