Drone aircraft use spreads to Northeast Ohio, privacy advocates express concern

By Sabrina Eaton, Plain Dealer Washington Reporter

The use of drones by civilian law enforcement agencies has proven controversial throughout the country. Last week, the mayor of Seattle, Washington ordered its police department to abandon its planned use of drones after protests from privacy advocates, and Charlottesville, Virginia passed a resolution to limit the use of police spy drones within city limits.

Ohio organizations that have obtained FAA permission to fly drones say their use is limited and won’t violate anyone’s privacy. Many of their machines are more like remote controlled model planes than the military drones used in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The unmanned aircraft owned by the Medina County Sheriff’s weighs about two pounds and can’t be used for surveillance because it only stays aloft for 22 minutes before its battery must be replaced, says Medina County Sheriff Tom Miller.

He said the machine is “like a remote-control helicopter” equipped with a video camera. It was donated to his department in 2011 by a local business that manufactures the drones and hopes to sell them to other law enforcement agencies. So far, Medina County has flown it only to train officers in its operation, says Miller.

Miller envisions the drone being used to scan wooded areas of the county for missing children or elderly people, aid the county’s SWAT team in crisis situations, and to help local fire departments get an overhead view of fires or train wrecks. His department has a six-page written policy for its use and would have to obtain a warrant if it ever wanted to try using it for surveillance.

“There is a legitimate concern about privacy,” says Miller. “If I’m having a barbecue in my backyard, I don’t want this thing flying over it, but I sure want it up in the air if my grandson is missing, The public has every right to know how these are going to be used by agencies that serve their communities.”

Seville-based Vista UAS LLC makes the Sheriff’s Department drone and several larger models that it designed to help fire departments with water rescues by carrying floatation devices to drowning people who may have fallen through ice. National sales manager Bryon Macron says the small business employs 10 people, and has sales pending to three other law enforcement agencies in Northeast Ohio.

“There is a lot of misinformation about drones,” says Macron.. “People watch the news and see pictures of drones in Pakistan that are armed with missiles. This doesn’t have that capability and we wouldn’t be part of anything like that.”

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