Los Angeles Sheriff’s UAV Runs headfirst into the FAA



The Los Angeles Sheriff’s Dept. has been working for several years with a defense contractor, Ocatron, to develop a specialized UAV for police work. Last week they gave reporters a demo.

The stealth quality of the SkySeer is a big advantage, according to police.

“The plane is virtually silent and invisible,” said Heal. “It will give us a vertical perspective that we have never had.”
The Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department operates a fleet of 18 helicopters, priced between three and five million dollars each. The SkySeer will cost between 25,000 and 30,000 dollars.

“We never have enough helicopters,” said Heal. The police helicopters are in near-constant use, and the SkySeer would alleviate some of this pressure.
Unmanned surveillance crafts may become the norm in urban policing, says Heal.

I think he’s completely correct and UAVs will probably become standard, even ubiquitous pieces of equipment for police. Especially as the industry picks up and prices fall way below the $20-30K estimate for the SkySeer. The only possible obstacle seems to be a regulatory one, and I don’t mean any kind of protection of privacy.
It turns out that the FAA is upset with the Sheriff’s dept. for not getting clearance for the flight, even though it was just a demonstration for reporters.
“I wouldn’t want to term us as peeved, but we were definitely surprised,” FAA spokeswoman Laura Brown said. Sheriff’s officials were told “that we were more than willing to sit down and talk about a certificate — but that was before their first flight.”
The FAA is now investigating Friday’s demonstration to determine whether the Sheriff’s Department should face disciplinary action.
“A private citizen can go to the store and buy one of those model airplanes and fly them around. But because we’re doing it as a public service, we have to deal with the FAA?” said Sheriff’s Cmdr. Sid Heal. Once they “take a deep breath and realize there was no malice intended, it will get back on track.”

From what I understand, it’s true that if a hobbyist flies a drone (and lots of people are already flying homebrew drones) below 500′, the FAA generally doesn’t care. But the hobbyists have their own regulatory worries—the Academy of Model Aeronautics has its own rules for members, and they’re very worried about the FAA’s reaction to widespread hobbyist UAVs. Therefore the AMA prohibits models with autonomous navigation, and requires operators of remotely piloted vehicles to “maintain un-enhanced visual contact with the aircraft throughout the entire flight.”
From an article about a possible new FAA classification scheme for UAVs:
The new classifications would also include a category being referred to as “lightly restricted” to cover aircraft currently restricted to flight within visual sight as the primary basis of risk mitigation. This category includes radio-controlled model aircraft, particularly model helicopters adapted for commercial use in aerial photography; small blimps used for advertising; and agricultural UAVs.

The “lightly restricted” classification represents systems that “are giving us a good deal of problems right now and we are really wrestling, on a daily basis, with this particular group”, says Steve Swartz, from the FAA’s recently established unmanned aircraft programme office.
I think even the regulatory issues involved in the integration of autonomous vehicles into our society are completely fascinating.