|The four-rotor Qube is made by AeroVironment for a variety of police applications, including searches, aerial photography, and light surveillance. (Below) Logo of the Northeast Region UAS Unit. Images courtesy of GFSD|
Since their widespread use as military surveillance platforms in the Middle East, unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) have drawn the attention of a public that has marveled at the technology’s ability to provide real-time intelligence to commanders. The average citizen, however, was not the only one to take notice of how effective UAVs were at getting the job without the need for an onboard pilot. State and local law enforcement officials were also paying attention.
Before long, small police and sheriff’s departments that could not afford a traditional helicopter unit were ordering fixed-wing and rotary-wing UAVs to deploy for searches, disaster management, crime scene photography, and any number of other missions. It was just a matter of paying for the equipment and having a few officers trained to fly it. The Grand Forks Sheriff’s Department (GFSD) in North Dakota was one of them, but came by its UAV program in an unconventional way.
It began in 2010, when Alan Frazier retired from the Glendale (Calif.) Police Department as the chief helicopter pilot. He moved to northeast to join the faculty of the Univeristy of North Dakota (UND) in Grand Forks.
“The genesis of our program really wasn’t focused on unmanned aircraft. It was focused on being able to stand-up an air support unit,” said Frazier. “But the chiefs and the sheriffs came to the conclusion that even with the potential of getting a donated aircraft, they couldn’t pull together enough money to be able to adequately operate a unit. So, we kind of had to go to a plan B, an unmanned aircraft.”
The advantages to a UAV partnership were expected to be two-fold. First, the school would be able to conduct a comprehensive study on the impact of UAVs on public safety. And second, law enforcement would have a new tool that might fill the void left by the lack of a helicopter unit. GFSD agreed to participate in the new UAV program.
Grand Forks County, located on the eastern edge of North Dakota, has a population of 69,000 living within its 1,440-sqquare-mile area. And even though 70 percent of the county’s citizens live in the city of Grand Forks, the other 14,000 are widely scattered throughout a vast range of small towns and rich farmland.
|GFSD officers display the Draganfly X6 UAV. The unit operates it along with three other UAVs in cooperation with the University of North Dakota. Photo courtesy of GFSD|
“We build systems that are industrial, so they can be used for any type of application where high-quality imaging is required,” said Kevin Lauscher, a spokesperson for Draganfly, which specializes in electric, rotary-wing UAVs that weigh less than 10 lbs. “And that takes us everywhere from real estate promotion, to industrial inspection, to law enforcement and emergency services.”
UAVs can cost between $3,000 and $30,000, depending on the type and capabilities of the camera system and the vehicle itself. The UND selected systems with forward-looking infrared and digital downlink. Lauscher said that some of his company’s UAV systems can fly as high as 8,000 feet MSL, though it isn’t practical to fly them higher than they can be seen.
“You need to see them to control them,” explained Lauscher. “The farthest we’ve ever flown ours out is about [one half of a mile], and it was just a speck, then.”
Rost understood that department heads in other parts of the country had received tremendous amounts of pushback from citizens – and sometimes elected officials – when they first publicized the acquisition of a UAV. The public’s concern was mainly that low-flying, camera-equipped drones would intrude upon their privacy. Rost knew he had to win public support for the program as early as possible, and turned to UND for help. The result was the formation of unique committee: the University of North Dakota’s Unmanned Aircraft Systems Research Compliance Committee (UASRCC).
UASRCC is a standing committee of the school’s Division of Research & Economic Development, and is responsible for reviewing and approving all UAV research and operations, including GFSD’s UAV activities, which remain part of a UND research project.
UASRCC stands as proof of the Rost’s commitment to transparency in his UAV program, due in large part to the makeup of the committee. It has citizens from the general community, public safety officials, people attached to UND, and two high-level government officials – one of the latter being a state prosecutor.
“All of the missions sets – the types of missions we fly in our unit – have been vetted through that committee. In some cases, they’ve actually given us things that we have to do,” explained Frazier. “For instance, we have portable signs that we post – when we can – that say ‘Unmanned Aircraft Systems in Use.’ When the media asks what we’re doing to protect people’s privacy, I tell them about that.”
GFSD has five “mission sets” that have been approved by UASRCC, so that each individual launch does not have to be taken to the committee. The first is crime and traffic collision scene photography. The second is searching for lost or missing people. Third is disaster assessment. The fourth mission set is traffic monitoring for major events. And the last set is carefully described as “searches for serious crime suspects.” (The last set purposely avoids using the words “searches for fleeing felons,” since certain assaults are serious enough to warrant the use of a UAV, but, by statute, do not rise to the level of being a felony.)
“The committee has not been a rubber stamp, but they haven’t been unreasonable,” Frazier observed. “I think they’ve served a really good purpose in maintaining checks and balances on the privacy of the public, versus the use of the aircraft.”
With transparent, public-friendly guidelines in place, GFSD still had one major issue to address: How to fly its UAVs without running afoul of the myriad of confusing, complicated, and mostly absent FAA policies governing their use, including something as simple as teaching personnel how to fly them.
“We had to get a certificate of authorization (COA) from the FAA for training,” noted Frazier.
FAA has used COAs as a stopgap measure to keep UAVs from encroaching upon manned air traffic until a comprehensive set of regulations that will do the job can be developed. But the seven-year-old COA system established for UAVs is laden with controversy.
In 2011, the FAA issued an administrative order assessing a $10,000 fine against Rafael Pirker, asserting that his commercial UAV flights over the University of Virginia for a paid video shoot violated the FAA’s 2007 ban on commercial drone flights. It also charged that Pirker operated the drone “in a careless or reckless manner so as to endanger the life or property of another.”
Pirker and his attorney, Brenden Schuler, entered a motion to have the charges dismissed, arguing that the FAA lacked the authority to regulate his 56-inch, foam, fixed-wing UAV, at least when it comes to banning commercial drone flights.
Patrick Geraghty, the administrative law judge for the U.S. National Transportation Safety Board who ruled on the appeal, said that at the time of Pirker’s flight, “…there was no enforceable FAA rule” on the type and model of UAV Pirker used.
“As a general matter, the decision finds that the FAA’s 2007 policy statement banning the commercial use of model aircraft is not enforceable,” said Schulman.
Other legal experts say that absent any subsequent regulations, which are not expected until the fall of 2014 at the earliest, the Pirker v. FAA ruling means the FAA cannot compel anyone to obtain a COA before flying a UAV, provided it does not interfere with air traffic. FAA is appealing that ruling.
Some law enforcement agencies have decided not to fly their UAVs, or even talk to anyone – including Rotor & Wing – until the FAA has a firm set of rules in place. But not GFSD. Frazier said that his department and UND have decided to treat FAA’s current polices as the law for now, and apply for COAs any time one appears to be required.
GFSD’s initial COAs were just for a small training area 35 miles west of Grand Forks. So, that’s where factory representatives came out to teach them how to fly the UAVs and employ their systems. They then practiced situation-based training by staging traffic accidents, barricade incidents, and searches.
“When we felt that we had gotten comfortable with that, we contacted the FAA and they came out and did an operational inspection,” reports Frazier. “They spend three days with us. They went through all of our records, our policies and procedures, our safety mitigation strategies, and then they actually came out and watched us do a simulated law enforcement mission with the X6.”
With the help of pilots from the Grand Forks Police Department, GFSD personnel have flown more than 250 training sorties and 10 actual missions as the Northeast Region UAS Unit, a mutual aid service available to other agencies in the northeast quadrant of North Dakota.
“If there’s been any disappointment with the program so far,” said Frazier, “it’s been the low number of actual missions we have flown.”
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