FAA approves Arlington's drones

Posted Friday, Mar. 08, 2013  comments  Print Reprints

Leptron Avenger

Weight: 11 pounds

Dimensions: 19.75 inches tall and 58 inches long

Features: Battery-powered and remote-controlled. Photo and video recording. Capable of making an automated emergency return to the starting point if communication with the pilot is lost or interrupted. Manual and autonomous flight.

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ARLINGTON -- The Arlington Police Department recently won approval from the federal government to fly two remote-control helicopters for public safety purposes, likely making it the largest urban police department in the nation to be given permission to use the unmanned craft, officials said.

Police Chief Will Johnson announced Thursday that the Federal Aviation Administration gave the city the go-ahead in late February to start using the 58-inch-long electric helicopters, which can fly up to 40 mph. They will be equipped with cameras and will be used in numerous law enforcement missions.

Johnson, who made the announcement at an annual awards banquet, called the "cutting-edge technology" a more affordable alternative to traditional police helicopters or airplanes. The drones could be useful in situations ranging from photographing car crashes or complex crime scenes to searching for missing people.

"We had a 77-year-old grandmother that left her front porch and was not seen again," said Johnson, referring to Maria Arrocha, a woman with Alzheimer's disease who died from exposure after wandering away from home Dec. 18.

"Despite your best efforts, searching for her 24 hours a day for weeks, we weren't able to locate her. This technology ... could help serve as a tool to return someone's grandmother home safely."

The department has been testing the craft for two years, but the FAA had restricted those training flights to secured city-owned land at the north end of Lake Arlington.

Arlington's new certificate of authorization allows flights within the city limits anywhere south of Interstate 30, away from the airspace of Dallas/Fort Worth Airport.

The drones will not be used in police pursuits, for traffic citations or on routine patrols.

Understanding the public's privacy concerns, Johnson said the department will make sure that the technology is "an asset for the community" and "not an intrusion into people's civil liberties."

Houston and Miami are among cities whose police departments have tested unmanned aircraft. Seattle was working to launch an unmanned-aircraft program, but the police chief and mayor decided last month to cancel those plans because of public backlash, according to news reports.

Citing privacy and security concerns, the FAA does not disclose information about which government entities or publicly funded universities have certificates of authorization.

But spokesman Les Dorr said 327 certificates of operation are active in the U.S.

Federal grant

In 2011, the city spent a little over $202,000 in federal grant money to buy two battery-operated Leptron Avengers. The cameras on the helicopters are designed to take consumer-grade video and photos. But the aircraft can also be equipped with night-vision cameras or thermal-imaging equipment.

The aircraft can be used in numerous ways, including in search-and-rescue and tactical operations; for surveys of damage from floods, fires or other natural disasters; for forensic mapping of complex crime scenes; and for analysis of hazardous-materials spills on highways or after derailments.

With several potential terrorist targets in Arlington, including Cowboys Stadium and Rangers Ballpark, the aircraft are being added to the department's tactical response plan "to detect and respond to acts of terrorism or related criminal activity."

"Even if we could, we would not use these for routine patrol," said Sgt. Christopher Cook, a police spokesman. "The true intent of this program is to protect our citizens, protect our police officers and assist in our investigations. These are tools that will make our community safer."

Arlington asked to fly the drones outside the training area three times last year but was turned down each time by the FAA, according to public records obtained by the Star-Telegram.

The Police Department had sought to demonstrate the vehicles at an FBI conference July 31-Aug. 1 in Grapevine. In December, the department wanted to use them to assess fire damage near the Viridian master-planned community in far north Arlington as well as to aid in the weeks-long search for Arrocha.

Arrocha's body was found in a wooded field in early January less than two miles from her home.

Tight controls

Arlington must continue to follow federal regulations, tactical Lt. John McGrath said.

The aircraft can be flown only during daylight at no higher than 400 feet and must remain within view of the pilot, who must hold a commercial license and demonstrate the ability to control the device. An observer must also be present.

The operator must remain in contact with the control tower at DFW Airport, and the devices must be able to automatically return to their starting point if they lose communication with the remote control.

Councilman Robert Rivera said he doesn't want the public to worry that police are illegally spying in their back yards.

"It's not a stealth surveillance device. This is visible to anyone who looks up. It's flown at the same level as a kite," Rivera said. "There is nothing to hide. This is a remote-controlled helicopter that is used to help put bad guys in jail, keep our officers out of harm's way and help improve the level of public safety for all of Arlington."

The aircraft will not be equipped with weapons, and the FAA prohibits spraying or dropping any kind of payload, according to documents released Thursday.

"We will never have weapons on this," McGrath said.

Arlington, which expects to begin using the craft citywide as soon as next month, will work to gain permission for nighttime use and to expand the approved flight area north of Interstate 30, McGrath said.

Privacy concerns

Even before the city got approval to fly the helicopters, some state lawmakers, concerned about privacy, were pushing to restrict how both hobbyists and law agencies can use them.

Rep. Lance Gooden, R-Terrell, co-authored HB912, titled the "Texas Privacy Act," which would make it illegal to use an unmanned vehicle or aircraft for surveillance on private property except in specific situations, such as during a police pursuit of a felony suspect.

"You cannot use an unmanned aerial vehicle to do indiscriminate surveillance," Gooden said. "There are really legitimate uses but we don't want the government to be able to watch us at all times. We want to make sure privacy is protected."

The bill, which has widespread support, is being reviewed by the House Criminal Jurisprudence Committee, Gooden said.

"The Legislature has an appetite to take this up" now, he said, before the technology becomes less expensive and more law enforcement agencies and hobbyists begin using it.

"We'd like to get some rules before it's impossible to pass a bill," Gooden said. "They are pretty cheap and they will continue to be cheaper."

Arlington police officials said they follow federal and state statutes and case law on privacy concerns and do not think more legislation is needed.

City administrators, working with the FAA and the Justice Department the past two years, have been participating in a national evaluation program to develop training and standards for law enforcement agencies that seek to use the aircraft to fight crime.

"Arlington is in the forefront here with this technology. We hope to serve as a role model for other agencies at the national level because it's not a question of 'if' these things are going to be coming to local law enforcement, it's 'when.'" Cook said.

"We definitely want to be responsible community partners."

Susan Schrock, 817-709-7578

Twitter: @susanschrock

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