Arlington police demonstrate their new eyes in the sky

Posted Friday, Mar. 29, 2013  comments  Print Reprints
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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 opening a new chapter in urban law enforcement practices.

The 58-inch-long, 11-pound, battery-powered helicopters can fly at 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 traverse 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 Dallas/Fort Worth Airport, and the department is working with the Grand Prairie and Arlington airports on flying 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 use.

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 on 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, news-gathering organizations and many others have seen the technology that was pioneered on battlefields, and they are eager to put it to use.

Houston, Miami and other cities' 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, The New York Times reported this month.

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.

Easy to fly

In 2011, Arlington 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 and thermal-imaging equipment.

The aircraft can be used in numerous ways, including 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 material spills on highways.

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 return automatically to their starting point if they lose communication with the remote control.

Arlington police say at least a three-man crew will be used anytime the aircraft is deployed.

"These are pretty easy to fly," Rollins 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."

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

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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