Is a drone in the future for Grand Rapids police?


By John Tunison

GRAND RAPIDS, MI — They’re versatile, small, helicopter-like and offer an unparalleled eye-in-the-sky for skilled users.

Drones are becoming ever more popular among hobbyists and for business purposes, and most experts say their use by police and fire agencies is only a matter of time.

So is the Grand Rapids Police Department in the market for one?

Not just yet, says Capt. David Kiddle.

“We’re focused on body cameras right now,” he said.

Drones were a popular item at an exhibitor’s space at the Michigan Association of Chiefs of Police conference at the Amway Grand Plaza this week.

A Grand Rapids police representative stopped by the Detroit Aircraft Corporation’s display on Wednesday, but there’s no plan to press forward with any purchase soon, Kiddle said.

“We can see applications for drones, whether it’s for a barricaded gunman or special operations,” he said. “But it’s just a big project we’re not ready for. There’s a lot of legal issues.”

A variety of questions linger about drones with the current Federal Aviation Administration regulations and they’re expensive — the models that Detroit Aircraft Corp. recommends for police and fire groups range from $25,000 to $50,000.

Todd Sedlak, sales director for Detroit Aircraft Corp., said he handed out at least 100 business cards during this week’s conference.

Public agencies need to apply for a Certificate of Authorization (COA) from the FAA that can take up to six months to obtain.

In Michigan, the state police and Detroit Fire Department are among the first to seek COAs. State police, in fact, already have authorization to do limited training flights.

Under FAA regulations, drone operators are only allowed to fly units up to 400 feet and it must remain in sight.

Sedlak said the applications for fire and police agencies are numerous.

If a community decides to fund one or more drones, he recommends starting with a fire department because of public worries that drones might invade privacy.

For fire departments, drones can be particularly useful when equipped with thermal cameras to detect hot spots in structures.

Firefighters can quickly figure out the location of a fire inside a house or attic without risking lives, Sedlak said.