No drone for Sheriff's Office | April 17, 2013 | Almanac | Almanac Online |


News - April 17, 2013

No drone for Sheriff's Office

by Dave Boyce

Plans are off for the purchase of a small drone aircraft about 2-feet square that would have allowed Sheriff's Office deputies to peer down from the sky, night or day, during search-and-rescue operations or hostage incidents.

As first reported in the Oakland Tribune, an uproar in Alameda County over a proposed drone purchase there led San Mateo County Sheriff Greg Munks to call off a request for $70,000 from the Department of Homeland Security for the unmanned aircraft. "We saw that (public opinion) for the utilizing of drones domestically is not really settled, so we decided not to pursue it," Mr. Munks said. "We're just going to stand down."

If public concerns about civil liberties and privacy can be satisfied and the public comes to accept domestic use of drone technology, the Sheriff's Office might take another look at it, he said. "There are too many unanswered questions, too much concern about how it would be used," he said. "It won't come back (as a priority) unless we put it out there (and) I have no intention of putting it out there."

Had the Sheriff's Office followed through on its proposal, the county Board of Supervisors would have had to approve both the funding request and the purchase, and it would have been discussed in public, Mr. Munks said.

As for the rules and policies around the use of a drone, Mr. Munks said he was reluctant to address hypothetical questions, but added that when not in use, it would be locked in a warehouse along with other specialized equipment, such as jet skis. The drone would be available only to officers trained to use it, he added.

A warrant from a judge would not be required to use it for search-and-rescue incidents or in a situation involving a SWAT team, Mr. Munks said. Were the county to someday acquire a drone, it would be available to other jurisdictions through mutual-aid arrangements in the Bay Area.

Airborne observer

The aircraft the Sheriff's Office had in mind — the AirCover QuadRotor QR425s — is marketed by Aircover Integrated Solutions.

Like a four-legged spider, the drone has a rectangular capsule in the center and legs at each corner, the end of each leg fitted with a vertically oriented helicopter-like blade. The center capsule is about eight inches by 10 inches, according to an image from the Aircover website.

It's powered by batteries and has a 25-minute flying time before a recharge is necessary, the specifications say. The drone uses satellite navigation, will "fly home" automatically, and can "perch" for surveillance, out of sight and all but silently. Among its options are an infrared camera for night vision and live streaming high-definition encrypted video.

Security infrastructure

The Sheriff's Office proposed the grant request through the Bay Area Urban Area Security Initiative, a quasi-governmental organization that meets monthly to "sustain and improve regional capacity to prevent, protect against, respond to, and recover from terrorist incidents and catastrophic events." The group includes representatives from San Francisco, Oakland, San Jose and 12 Bay Area counties.

The Bay Area UASI receives funding from the DHS and Federal Emergency Management Agency, said spokesman Francis Zamora. An advisory group includes the Northern California Regional Intelligence Center (NCRIC)/Fusion Center, one of 78 in the United States. Fusion centers are "are uniquely situated to empower front-line law enforcement, public safety, fire service, emergency response, public health, critical infrastructure protection, and private sector security personnel to understand local implications of national intelligence, thus enabling local officials to better protect their communities."

Bay Area UASI received $35.5 million in 2011-12, and $22 million in 2012-13, with around $22 million expected for the fiscal year that starts July 1, Mr. Zamora said in an email. Among the projects funded are a system for Bay Area police departments to share photo, video and data in the field for finding suspects and missing people, and radios that Bay Area firefighters, for example, could use to communicate with each other during a major event.

So far, UASI has not approved an unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) request for any member agencies, Mr. Zamora said. If an agency has one, "then it was requested, approved and purchased using funds outside of UASI," he said.


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