Arlington police demonstrate unmanned helicopter

Posted Thursday, Mar. 28, 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 -- With a short whine and then a steady low buzz, one of the Arlington Police Department's two remote-controlled helicopters took off for a short demonstration flight Thursday afternoon, perhaps helping open a new chapter in urban law-enforcement practices.

The 58-inch-long, 11-pound, battery-powered helicopters can fly up to 40 mph and will be equipped with cameras. Police say they will be used for operations ranging from investigating fatal crashes on the two interstate highways that transverse the city to assessing damage from tornadoes and floods to helping search for missing people.

Under the permission granted by the Federal Aviation Administration, the helicopters must stay lower than 400 feet from the ground and must be visible to the pilot at all times. They cannot be flown north of Interstate 30 because of the proximity to Dallas/Fort Worth Airport, and the department is working to get letters of agreement with the Grand Prairie and Arlington municipal airports on the notification process for when the helicopters are used in their airspace.

"These are not going to be in the trunks of police cars going down the road," said Sgt. Christopher Cook, supervisor of the department's communications office. The department has strict protocols on how and when an incident commander can request their usage, he said, and would only be used once a clearly defined perimeter had been established.

Even then, said tactical unit Sgt. Brook Rollins, a licensed pilot who heads the department's aviation unit, the final decision on whether to fly will be made by the pilot commander upon arrival at the scene.

"The incident commander may want it, but the pilot commander will have final say," Rollins said.

"Surveillance society"

Predictions that multitudes of unmanned aircraft could be flying here within a decade are raising the specter of a "surveillance society" in which no home or back yard would be off limits to prying eyes overhead.

Law enforcement, oil companies, farmers, real estate agents, newsgathering organizations and many others have seen the technology that was pioneered on battlefields, and they are eager to put it to use.

"The sky's the limit, pun intended," Bill Borgia, an engineer at Lockheed Martin, told National Geographic for an article about drones in the March issue. "Once we get UAVs in the hands of potential users, they'll think of lots of cool applications."

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.

The military, which is bringing home unmanned aircraft from Afghanistan, wants room to test and use them. But the potential civilian market for drones may far eclipse military demand. Some see it reaching $11 billion over the next decade, double what it is now, The New York Times reported this month.

Power companies want them to monitor transmission lines. Farmers and ranchers want to fly them over fields or count cattle.

The government is in the early stages of devising rules for the unmanned aircraft. Congress has ordered the FAA to open airspace to drones by Sept. 30, 2015.

Some 37 states have applied to be chosen as one of six federal sites for the testing of commercial drones. The FAA is set to make its choices by the end of the year.

Jay Stanley, senior policy analyst for the ACLU Speech, Privacy and Technology Project, is among those who have laid out nightmare scenarios for drone programs run amok.

"The fact that drones are so inexpensive will have another consequence: because so many drones will be out there, and so many people innovating with them, it's very likely that the technology will develop new capabilities that have never existed for police helicopters. Many of these may be things that haven't even occurred to anyone yet, but to pick just one possibility, it could involve the ability for swarms of drones to act in increasingly sophisticated, coordinated fashion to carry out surveillance that a single manned aircraft could never perform," he wrote in a post this month on the Free Future blog.

Easy to fly

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."

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. Arlington police say at least a three-man crew, and preferable four people, will be used anytime the aircraft is deployed.

A redundant ground control system can take over if the remote control fails, said Rollins, the tactical sergeant.

"These are pretty easy to fly," he said. "It has a pretty sophisticated autopilot that makes 300 to 500 corrections a second to maintain steady flight. We've trained to fly manually, but we prefer to use the autopilot."

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

Arlington will work to gain permission for nighttime use and to expand the approved flight area north of Interstate 30.

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

"If a search warrant was already needed, we would need a search warrant with" the helicopters, Cook said Thursday.

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.

"We want to be a model on how to set the standards for law enforcement's use of this technology," Cook said.

This report includes material from the Star-Telegram archives.

Patrick M. Walker, 682-232-4674

Twitter: @patrickmwalker1

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