Government Technology

FAA Nixes Unmanned Surveillance Aircraft for U.S. Cops



June 9, 2009 By

Photo: The MQ-9 Reaper is an unmanned aerial vehicle developed by General Atomics Aeronautical Systems for use by the United States Air Force, the United States Navy, and the British Royal Air Force.

Three years later and the refusal to allow U.S. police forces such as the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department to take advantage of small and lightweight unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) for aerial surveillance of potential crime scenes still rankles.

"The FAA is essentially trying to scare people into not using these devices or to require stricter authorization. But that policy exceeds their authority granted by Congress," stated Tim Adelman an aviation lawyer who is currently lobbying the Federal Aviation Administration on behalf of certain law enforcement bodies -- so far with limited success -- to drop its legal veto.

"We are seeing better UAS products that are functional and can be used by law enforcement," he continued.

Nevertheless, the FAA is maintaining its prohibition of the UAS for general use by public bodies except for testing and temporary emergencies such as brush fires -- at least until all of its safety concerns are ironed out according to spokesperson Les Dorr. He told Digital Communities that every so often a police force will determine on its own that it can ignore the FAA ban and start using UAS for investigations. "Some law enforcement departments feel they can do this for whatever reason -- either because they are not familiar with the process or they don't feel they have to go through the process [of FAA authorization]," he explained.

Also known as unmanned aircraft vehicles (UAVs) and drones, the UAS originated in the military as pilotless vehicles such as the Predator and the Global Hawk and are designed to unleash firepower from the air on an enemy force on the ground with the human operator of the remote control system situated at a safe distance.

Now, hundreds of companies from Boeing at the high end to small out-of-a-garage outfits have developed a more benign and lighter version in the form of products which typically carry digital and video cameras onboard for surveillance from the air.

Advocates have cited a variety of applications including observing signs of activity inside and outside a house or building during a hostage taking, the hunt for stolen vehicles across a large area and the tracking of a burgeoning forest fire or flood.

Sergeant Brian Muller at the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department maintains that the UAS is ideal in search and rescue operations for missing children.

A search and rescue operation relying on a lot of visual information provided by digital and video cameras inside a UAS can cover a lot of ground in a large geographical area like LA County in a short period of time. This can "mean the difference between somebody living or dying" in the process, Sergeant Muller said.

He pointed to some contradictions in how remote control devices are regulated today in the U.S.

"If you are Joe Citizen, you can go down to the hobby store and buy a remote control airplane that you can fly in a park. But if you put a police uniform on, the feds want to step in and get in the way," he said.

Sergeant Muller added that the UASs which can cost in the vicinity of $50,000 are a bargain compared to purchasing a helicopter which is generally priced in the millions.

But until serious technical deficiencies in the UAS are solved, they will be kept out of U.S. skies, stated Les Dorr at the FAA.

"There is nothing to our knowledge and no UAS technology at this time that would allow unmanned aircraft to meet the same 'see


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Comments

Henry Sands, Esq. (Ret.)    |    Commented June 10, 2009

You failed to mention the violation of civil liberties such constant surveillance would commit. Backyard privacy, indeed slant views of home interiors through windows would be constant as well. And all without probable, or even reasonable cause. We are not at war at home. National security is not at stake. Stick to a limited use of helicopters; they represent a better balance between technical law enforcement and civil liberties.

Henry Sands, Esq. (Ret.)    |    Commented June 10, 2009

You failed to mention the violation of civil liberties such constant surveillance would commit. Backyard privacy, indeed slant views of home interiors through windows would be constant as well. And all without probable, or even reasonable cause. We are not at war at home. National security is not at stake. Stick to a limited use of helicopters; they represent a better balance between technical law enforcement and civil liberties.

Henry Sands, Esq. (Ret.)    |    Commented June 10, 2009

You failed to mention the violation of civil liberties such constant surveillance would commit. Backyard privacy, indeed slant views of home interiors through windows would be constant as well. And all without probable, or even reasonable cause. We are not at war at home. National security is not at stake. Stick to a limited use of helicopters; they represent a better balance between technical law enforcement and civil liberties.

CB    |    Commented June 10, 2009

The article does not state precisely what kind of vehicles Police would like to use. Smaller vehicles below $50K does not really say how far away and how high they can fly. The statement that they would be operated in close proximity with an officer may be true, but: 1) They must take off and land (or are they VTOL? Helos?) 2) What if the operator tangles with some power lines down the road he cannot see well from his/her vantage point? Your concept is feasible, surely, in some instances, but in general I think the FAA is right in requiring high standards. What may solve the impasse is clarification and differentiation between different categories of UAS.

CB    |    Commented June 10, 2009

The article does not state precisely what kind of vehicles Police would like to use. Smaller vehicles below $50K does not really say how far away and how high they can fly. The statement that they would be operated in close proximity with an officer may be true, but: 1) They must take off and land (or are they VTOL? Helos?) 2) What if the operator tangles with some power lines down the road he cannot see well from his/her vantage point? Your concept is feasible, surely, in some instances, but in general I think the FAA is right in requiring high standards. What may solve the impasse is clarification and differentiation between different categories of UAS.

CB    |    Commented June 10, 2009

The article does not state precisely what kind of vehicles Police would like to use. Smaller vehicles below $50K does not really say how far away and how high they can fly. The statement that they would be operated in close proximity with an officer may be true, but: 1) They must take off and land (or are they VTOL? Helos?) 2) What if the operator tangles with some power lines down the road he cannot see well from his/her vantage point? Your concept is feasible, surely, in some instances, but in general I think the FAA is right in requiring high standards. What may solve the impasse is clarification and differentiation between different categories of UAS.

JD    |    Commented June 10, 2009

Lets see $50K up front for the drone. $100K a year (Salary + benefits) for a police or civil service pilot. Ten year fully loaded cost $1M plus maintenance and departmental insurance. A used Cessna 172 is $50K FOUR sets of FREE eyes by the civil air patrol $0. Ten year fully loaded cost $50K plus all the other costs that a UAV would have, insurance picked up by the Air Force and many young people getting valuable skills and character building. Do the math and tell the hucksters to take a hike!

JD    |    Commented June 10, 2009

Lets see $50K up front for the drone. $100K a year (Salary + benefits) for a police or civil service pilot. Ten year fully loaded cost $1M plus maintenance and departmental insurance. A used Cessna 172 is $50K FOUR sets of FREE eyes by the civil air patrol $0. Ten year fully loaded cost $50K plus all the other costs that a UAV would have, insurance picked up by the Air Force and many young people getting valuable skills and character building. Do the math and tell the hucksters to take a hike!

JD    |    Commented June 10, 2009

Lets see $50K up front for the drone. $100K a year (Salary + benefits) for a police or civil service pilot. Ten year fully loaded cost $1M plus maintenance and departmental insurance. A used Cessna 172 is $50K FOUR sets of FREE eyes by the civil air patrol $0. Ten year fully loaded cost $50K plus all the other costs that a UAV would have, insurance picked up by the Air Force and many young people getting valuable skills and character building. Do the math and tell the hucksters to take a hike!

Tony S. Chief Pilot University Aviation Training    |    Commented June 11, 2009

Whether we like or dislike the thought of UAVs out there flying around, the truth is they are coming and in a big way. They do have capabilities that a traditional aircraft and pilot do not have. Namely the ability to stay aloft for more than a day. It would be really hard for a few CAP pilots to offer that type of service. I have been involved with Predator flights and although they have amazing camera technologies - they cant see into windows - even with the IR cameras. For some reason people dont get bothered by a helicopter flying over looking for "bad guys" but somehow feel that a UAV flying around is on a spying mission. Its sort of a double standard, and its one that we will need to get over. Its estimated that after the airspace is opened up to UAVs, in 10 to 15 years the number of UAVs will equal the number of regular airplanes.

Tony S. Chief Pilot University Aviation Training    |    Commented June 11, 2009

Whether we like or dislike the thought of UAVs out there flying around, the truth is they are coming and in a big way. They do have capabilities that a traditional aircraft and pilot do not have. Namely the ability to stay aloft for more than a day. It would be really hard for a few CAP pilots to offer that type of service. I have been involved with Predator flights and although they have amazing camera technologies - they cant see into windows - even with the IR cameras. For some reason people dont get bothered by a helicopter flying over looking for "bad guys" but somehow feel that a UAV flying around is on a spying mission. Its sort of a double standard, and its one that we will need to get over. Its estimated that after the airspace is opened up to UAVs, in 10 to 15 years the number of UAVs will equal the number of regular airplanes.

Tony S. Chief Pilot University Aviation Training    |    Commented June 11, 2009

Whether we like or dislike the thought of UAVs out there flying around, the truth is they are coming and in a big way. They do have capabilities that a traditional aircraft and pilot do not have. Namely the ability to stay aloft for more than a day. It would be really hard for a few CAP pilots to offer that type of service. I have been involved with Predator flights and although they have amazing camera technologies - they cant see into windows - even with the IR cameras. For some reason people dont get bothered by a helicopter flying over looking for "bad guys" but somehow feel that a UAV flying around is on a spying mission. Its sort of a double standard, and its one that we will need to get over. Its estimated that after the airspace is opened up to UAVs, in 10 to 15 years the number of UAVs will equal the number of regular airplanes.

Sean    |    Commented June 11, 2009

I honestly can not believe Mr. Tim Adelman understands anything about aviation other than the legal side. To even vaguely consider an idea like this is absurd. The aircraft that law enforcement want are not the little 5-10 pound model airplanes that Joe Citizen operates via line-of-site, these aircraft are as large as small manned aircraft operated via RC and camera view miles away from the operator. The airspace over every locality would be polluted with LE UAVs most likely operated by untrained pilots in every weather condition. This would certainly be a general aviation, commercial avaition, and military aviation catastrophe. If law enforcement wants to utilize airspace, then they need to follow the LAWS established by the FAA.

Sean    |    Commented June 11, 2009

I honestly can not believe Mr. Tim Adelman understands anything about aviation other than the legal side. To even vaguely consider an idea like this is absurd. The aircraft that law enforcement want are not the little 5-10 pound model airplanes that Joe Citizen operates via line-of-site, these aircraft are as large as small manned aircraft operated via RC and camera view miles away from the operator. The airspace over every locality would be polluted with LE UAVs most likely operated by untrained pilots in every weather condition. This would certainly be a general aviation, commercial avaition, and military aviation catastrophe. If law enforcement wants to utilize airspace, then they need to follow the LAWS established by the FAA.

Sean    |    Commented June 11, 2009

I honestly can not believe Mr. Tim Adelman understands anything about aviation other than the legal side. To even vaguely consider an idea like this is absurd. The aircraft that law enforcement want are not the little 5-10 pound model airplanes that Joe Citizen operates via line-of-site, these aircraft are as large as small manned aircraft operated via RC and camera view miles away from the operator. The airspace over every locality would be polluted with LE UAVs most likely operated by untrained pilots in every weather condition. This would certainly be a general aviation, commercial avaition, and military aviation catastrophe. If law enforcement wants to utilize airspace, then they need to follow the LAWS established by the FAA.

Erich    |    Commented June 11, 2009

Why must you journalist types keep tacking on Predator photos on top of stories about SMALL UAS? You people are part of the problem of ignorance when it comes to this potentially life saving technology.

Erich    |    Commented June 11, 2009

Why must you journalist types keep tacking on Predator photos on top of stories about SMALL UAS? You people are part of the problem of ignorance when it comes to this potentially life saving technology.

Erich    |    Commented June 11, 2009

Why must you journalist types keep tacking on Predator photos on top of stories about SMALL UAS? You people are part of the problem of ignorance when it comes to this potentially life saving technology.

Jerry Baker    |    Commented June 16, 2009

Let us not forget that a few eight pound geese caused the crash of the Airbus into the Hudson River. Most, if not all UAS aircraft are larger than a goose.

Jerry Baker    |    Commented June 16, 2009

Let us not forget that a few eight pound geese caused the crash of the Airbus into the Hudson River. Most, if not all UAS aircraft are larger than a goose.

Jerry Baker    |    Commented June 16, 2009

Let us not forget that a few eight pound geese caused the crash of the Airbus into the Hudson River. Most, if not all UAS aircraft are larger than a goose.

Anonymous    |    Commented August 19, 2009

So let the FAA regulate the geese ... What does operate outside of airport air space mean to you? I don't expect an Airbus to be operating at low altitudes in the majority of the inner city where crime is committed.

Anonymous    |    Commented August 19, 2009

So let the FAA regulate the geese ... What does operate outside of airport air space mean to you? I don't expect an Airbus to be operating at low altitudes in the majority of the inner city where crime is committed.

Anonymous    |    Commented August 19, 2009

So let the FAA regulate the geese ... What does operate outside of airport air space mean to you? I don't expect an Airbus to be operating at low altitudes in the majority of the inner city where crime is committed.

Officer    |    Commented February 22, 2012

We are not at war at home? Why do I keep getting shot at? Why can't you walk down the street in some areas of town with the fear of being killed? Why are there shoot outs on major highways? Oh...you're at a desk, inside a sky scraper. You don't see this. Go walk down the BLVD in the Bronx or in LA. Let us know about that war...

David    |    Commented October 18, 2012

In response to CB: Local police department about interested in purchasing small UAV units and they are not $50K units. Each Unit is about $2K and the size and weight of a Ipad. The PD only wants to use it to survey an active crime scene and the city want to take aerials of traffic accidents. Either application will save the local government thousands of dollars because they don't have to book expensive manned helicopters which are often not available when you need them. In response to Sean: No, the UAV that the local government wants to use are about 5LB (not 50LB) each including the a small camera. I'm not saying that small UAV are without risk. Just because driving cars have a element of risk doesn't mean we shouldn't not drive. With appropriate regulation, the use of UAV will likely save a lot more lives vs. the lives it will jeopardize. By delaying the approval process for UAV use in law enforcement and other civil government application, we are preventing officers from doing their job in protecting our security. And our cities can operate more efficiently in this difficult economic times.

David    |    Commented October 18, 2012

In response to Jerry: The last time I check a geese is flown by an "animal" and a RC UAV is flown by a human. There is the big difference. Adelman is right in stating there is a reasonable safety margin when UAVs are operated within the line of sight below controlled airspace. With its line in toll, don't you think even a kite is many times more dangerous than an UAV in low altitude and kite won't safe lives. Having operated all kinds of RC air crafts I know a small UAV is also much safer to operate than a bicycle which is much more likely to cause an auto accident.


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