Drones tested as tools for police and firefighters

By Brian Bennett, Los Angeles Times

WASHINGTON — On a chaparral-covered hillside 40 miles north of Los Angeles in June 2010, researchers from the Department of Homeland Security hid a device the size of a pack of cigarettes that emitted a safe pulse of low-grade radiation.

It was a stand-in for a dirty bomb, or fallout from a nuclear meltdown.

Nearby, a pilot toggled a joystick, and a gray drone with the wingspan of a California condor banked through the sky. As the plane’s sensor sniffed for radioactive isotopes, law enforcement officers and firefighters watched a portable controller that looked like an oversized Game Boy.

In minutes, a warning signal glowed on the screen. The drone had detected the radiation.

“Think of Fukushima or some awful event like that,” said Cmdr. Bob Osborne, who hosted the tests as part of his job finding and buying new gadgets for theLos Angeles County Sheriff’s Department. “We wanted to know: Will it even be able to detect radiation? And it did.”