UAVsSeattle police takes steps to quell drone concerns

Published 1 May 2012

The Seattle Police Department recently acquired a small camera-equipped drone, but it remains unused while city policymakers work to calm privacy concerns

The Seattle Police Department recently acquired a small camera-equipped drone, but it remains unused while city policymakers work to calm privacy concerns.

In the minds of many people, drones are associated with aircraft-sized vehicle which delivers missile strikes on terrorists, or remain in flight for hours on surveillance missions. The Seattle police drone, by comparison, has more the appearance of a toy than a serious surveillance vehicle.

The Seattle Times reports that the department recently purchased a Draganflyer X6 Helicopter Tech at a cost of $41,000. The drone weighs 3.5 pounds and carries cameras that can capture still, video, and infrared images. It also has a battery life of only ten minutes and cannot be flown over crowds or around people.

Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) regulations require that the drones be flown at altitudes of less than 400 feet, and that they not be flown over crowds out of safety concerns. They must also remain within the eyesight of the operator and an observer at all times.

These restrictions, combined with the vehicle’s limitations, mean that the drones can only be used in particular situations, such as aerial images of traffic collisions, or where someone has barricaded themselves in a building, to determine whether there are hostages or weapons present. Fire fighters and smoke jumpers have also had the drone demonstrated, and see the value for their respective services.

Lt. Greg Sackman, who runs the Police Department’s Arson/Bomb Squad and oversees the unmanned-vehicle program, said the funding for the purchase of the two drones, one of which is under the control of the King’s County Sheriff’s Office, came from a grant from the federal Urban Areas Security program.Despite the limitations imposed by the device itself, and the FAA, the police acquisition of the tiny drone and approval for its use from the FAA have raised questions ranging from privacy concerns to the militarization of police work.

Seattle’s mayor Mike McGinn said the UAVs are an affordable alternative to a helicopter, adding  “I understand people’s concerns about how the Police Department might use an unmanned aerial vehicle.”

Councilmember Bruce Harrell added “We will work with the community, ACLU and SPD to set very clear policy to ensure your privacy rights are not violated and implement measures to hold the city accountable.”

McGinn added that the drones will not be used until a publicly vetted policy is in place.

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