Americas Multirotor Police RAPS

Seattle police plan for helicopter drones hits severe turbulence

By Jonathan Kaminsky

(Reuters) – One of the latest crime-fighting gadgets to emerge on the wish lists of U.S. law enforcement agencies – drone aircraft – has run into heavy turbulence in Seattle over a plan by police to send miniature robot helicopters buzzing over the city.

A recent push for unmanned police aircraft in several cities is being driven largely by grants from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, including more than $80,000 the city of Seattle used to buy a pair of drone choppers in 2010.

But getting aerial drones off the ground has run into stiff opposition from civil libertarians and others who say the use of stealth airborne cameras by domestic law enforcement raises questions about privacy rights and the limits of police search powers.

The aircraft would never carry weapons, but the use of drones for even mundane tasks raises ire among some because of the association of pilotless crafts with covert U.S. missile strikes in places such as Pakistan and Yemen.

In Seattle last month, a community meeting where police officials presented plans to deploy their two remote-controlled helicopters erupted into yelling and angry chants of “No drones!”

“My question is simple: What’s the return policy for the drones?” said Steve Widmayer, 57, one of numerous citizens who spoke out against the unmanned aircraft. He predicted the City Council would commit “political suicide” if it backed the plan.

Seattle City Councilman Bruce Harrell said he hoped the council would set strict drone policies by January.

Police in Seattle, along with Florida’s Miami-Dade County and Houston, are among a handful of big-city law enforcement departments known to have acquired aerial drones. But those cities have not started operating the robot aircraft.


In Oakland, California, this month, an Alameda County sheriff’s application for a federal grant to buy an aerial drone to help monitor unruly crowds and locate illegal marijuana farms drew opposition at a Board of Supervisors meeting.

“I do not want flying spy robots looking into my private property with infrared cameras,” Oakland resident Mary Madden said. “It’s an invasion of my privacy.”

County Board President Nate Miley said the issue would be taken up by the supervisors’ Public Protection Committee.

The two Draganflyer X6 remote-controlled miniature helicopters purchased by Seattle have so far been mostly grounded, restricted to training and demonstration flights.

Equipped to carry video, still and night-vision cameras, they can remain aloft for only 15 minutes at a time before their batteries run out, police said.

Assistant Police Chief Paul McDonagh said the aircraft would not be used in Seattle for surveillance or for monitoring street protests. Instead, his department’s plans to deploy drones to search for missing persons, pursue fleeing suspects, assist in criminal investigations and for unspecified “specific situations” subject to McDonagh’s approval.

Seattle City Councilman Bruce Harrell said he hoped the council would set strict drone policies by January.

Months ago in Texas, Chief Deputy Randy McDaniel of the Montgomery County Sheriff’s Office raised eyebrows by saying he hoped to equip his department’s drones with rubber bullets and tear gas, though he told Reuters his thinking on armed aircraft has since evolved.

“From a law enforcement standpoint, that’s never going to happen,” he said. McDaniel said his office received Federal Aviation Administration clearance earlier this month to begin operational drone flights but has not yet had occasion to do so.

Actual U.S. domestic use of law-enforcement drone aircraft remains extremely limited.

The Mesa County Sheriff’s Department in Colorado has been operating two small drones, also bought with Homeland Security funds, since 2010.

It uses them largely to create three-dimensional images of crime scenes, said Benjamin Miller, director of the department’s drone program. They are not used for surveillance, he said.

In North Dakota, the Grand Forks police department last year called in a high-flying Predator drone operated by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security to monitor a tense standoff with a rancher over alleged stolen cattle.

The rancher, Rodney Brossart, and five family members are believed to be the first Americans nabbed by police with drone assistance – with the possible exception of operations along the southwest border with Mexico.

The use of drones there by the Customs and Border Protection agency – a part of Homeland Security – led to 7,500 arrests and the seizure of thousands of pounds of drugs up to the end of last year.

The nationality of those arrested in drone assisted operations in the borderlands is not clear, nor is if Customs and Border Protection partnered with local forces in any of those arrests.

(Editing by Steve Gorman and Jackie Frank)

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