A county in western Colorado has embraced domestic police drones in an era when states are increasingly limiting use of the technology.
The Mesa County Sheriff’s Department is one of the few departments in the U.S. authorized to maneuver unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) virtually without geographic boundaries. That means it’s allowed to deploy its state-of-the-art cameras almost everywhere within the county’s 3,300 square miles.
“We can fly them pretty much anywhere we want,” says program director Ben Miller.
Since January 2010, the department has logged 171 flight hours with its two drones. Though they were intended mainly for search and rescue efforts, they’ve been used in only two such missions, neither of which was successful. The county deploys the drones mostly for police chases and crime scene reconstruction.
The department is helping lead a national push among law enforcement agencies to peel away layers of federal red tape that limit police use of drones.
“Mesa County has done everything by the book with the FAA. But the thing is, the book is pretty thin in terms of federal requirements,” says Shawn Musgrave of Muckrock, a national nonprofit watchdog group working with the Electronic Frontier Foundation to monitor the proliferation of domestic drones.
A tinkerer and an elected boss
Mesa County’s efforts to put eyes in its sky started in 2008 when Miller, a logistics and technology expert with the department, took a personal interest in UAVs, which are also known as unmanned aerial systems (UASs). Miller has always been a tinkerer, having rigged a system of pulleys and strings to flip his bedroom light switch from his bunk bed as a grade-schooler.
Two manufacturers donated drones after Miller started researching how UAVs rigged with high-resolution cameras and thermal imaging technology might help the county’s 50 to 60 annual search and rescue efforts. First, Canada-based Dragonfly Innovations gave a helicopter-type drone that’s valued at about $20,000, and then Falcon UAV of Aurora donated a fixed wing system worth about $30,000, Miller says. In exchange for the donations, the county agreed to buy parts and materials from both companies.
The cost of operating battery powered unmanned aerial vehicles is estimated to run between 3 percent to 10 percent the cost of operating police helicopters and airplanes. There’s no refueling or operator fatigue, and the training takes days rather than months or years.
Mesa County uses its drones about twice a month, not including training and evaluation missions. Since 2009, Miller estimates it has spent $10,000 to $15,000 on the program.
The price tag, he says, made the program easy to sell to his boss, Sheriff Stan Hilkey. The decision to use and fund aerial surveillance was Hilkey’s alone, not the Mesa County Commission’s.
“That’s one of the benefits of a sheriff’s office. You work for an elected official. Had this been a police department, it would have been more complicated running it up the food chain,” Miller says. “The Sheriff thought about the potential risks involved and it didn’t take long to realize that we had no intentions of doing stuff that gets people nervous.”
Launching the program took patience. The Federal Aviation Administration requires authorities to fill out reams of paperwork to fly the same drones hobbyists can fly after reading a single page of guidelines. Despite the disparities in certification procedures, the rules for police are essentially the same as for hobbyists: No flying above 400 feet, near airports, at night or over heavily populated areas.
Miller is a true believer in drones. He sees great potential for them in the vast rural county where he works — a place where hikers, rock climbers, mountain bikers, ATV riders and hunters are drawn to its mesas and craggy backcountry, 75 percent of which is public land. All too often, hunters get lost tracking an antelope or elk, climbers forget to secure their ropes and guys with inflatable mattresses and six packs lose control in the currents of the Colorado River. Out-of-towners, especially panicked and injured ones, often aren’t very helpful describing their locations to 911 operators.
“That’s why a bird’s-eye view is so important,” Miller says.
The fixed-wing Falcon system is capable of flying back and forth grid patterns that augment rescue-team efforts. It also can photograph terrain that’s too hazardous for rescuers to reach on foot.
Despite Miller’s enthusiasm, the county’s drones were unsuccessful in the two search and rescue missions in which they were deployed — searches for a suicidal woman in February and for lost hikers last May. So far, he is frustrated to admit, “We’ve never found anyone yet.”
“Four years ago I was all like ‘This is gonna be cool. We’re going to save the world.’ Now I realize we’re not saving the world, we’re just saving tons of money. I know this conversation would be very different if we could say we’ve saved somebody.”
Instead of searches and rescues, Miller says Mesa County generally uses its drones for crime scene reconstructions in which they shoot aerial photos that can be turned into three-dimensional models for investigators. They’ve been deployed in a few police chases and the department offered one of its drones to help reconstruct a murder scene in Hinsdale County.
“I bet by year’s end, I’ll be able to say that we’ve put people in jail who are guilty of murder,” says Miller.
He recently offered a drone to Mesa County’s public works department to help determine the volume in its landfill. This summer, he hopes to deploy drones to track wildfires.
At first, there was a novelty for Miller and the three other department staffers trained to operate the remote-controlled flying machines.
“But you realize very quickly that it’s not ‘Top Gun,’ it’s not the sexy stuff in the military. You go into environments that are hot or cold and you sit and look at a computer screen all day.”
Battling drone bureaucracy
Miller says he gets calls every week from other sheriff and police departments throughout the country seeking to start their own drone programs. Most, he says, are daunted by the FAA’s lengthy application process.
“When I explain how much paperwork it involves, nobody wants to do it by the book. I bet half of them go out and [fly the drones] anyway without approval. What it ends up doing is creating a culture of noncompliance for police agencies who, ironically, are the ones who are supposed to be following the law.”
What initially started as an effort to save lives, Miller says, morphed into a mission to convince “the FAA these rules are ridiculous and you’re standing in the way of an incredibly important tool.” He has testified before the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee and is working with the FAA to “try to find better ways” to make drones more accessible to local law enforcers.
According to a Government Accountability Office report released last year, Mesa County was one of nine local law enforcement agencies with a “certification of waiver or authorization” to use drones. Such waivers “represent exceptions to the usual aircraft certification process” reads the report (PDF).
The University of Colorado – Boulder has applied to run one to six drone test sites across the country. The university filed its application on behalf of dozens of private companies, five industry associations, 10 regional economic development agencies, seven universities and two state agencies, although it has not revealed specifics. A decision should come in December.
The number of FAA waivers is expected to grow as local law enforcers can now choose from about 150 types of small drones manufactured by more than 50 companies. As technology advances, drones are being made that are as small as birds or large insects. Every year brings improvements in the resolution of the images they produce and the capabilities of their thermal imaging. Their capacity to intercept wireless communications also is advancing.
“FAA’s goal is to eventually permit, to the greatest extent possible, routine [drone] operations in the national airspace system while ensuring safety. As the list of potential uses for UAS grows, so do the concerns about how they might affect existing military and non-military aviation as well as concerns about how they might be used,” reads the GAO report.
Security, air safety, surveillance
One concern is security. The Transportation Security Administration has warned that drones could be used by terrorists to drop dirty bombs. In 2012, the FAA fined a private UAV operator $10,000 for flying a small drone over the heavily populated campus of the University of Virginia.
There are also air-safety concerns. “To date, no suitable technology has been deployed that would provide [drones] with the capability to sense and avoid other aircraft and airborne objects and to comply completely with FAA regulatory requirements of the national airspace system,” according to the GAO report. Transponders are on the market, but not widely used because they’re expensive.
Wider concerns pivot on privacy and civil-rights violations. A survey by the Monmouth University Polling Institute shows overwhelming support for drones as search-and-rescue and border-control tools, but found 80 percent of people expressed some level of concern about privacy infringements by law enforcement drones with high-tech cameras.
In a recent speech at the National Press Club, Sen. Mark Udall said Coloradans “hold sacred their open spaces, seclusion and privacy both in the furthest wilderness areas and in the center of their greatest cities. It’s part of who we are in the West.”
“So it’s not surprising that it would give them pause to hear that with a few hundred dollars, a UAS operator could record or broadcast live audio and video of a family eating dinner or anyone sitting in their back yard. The potential for surveillance raises real concerns. It is invasive and can be done unprotected,” Udall said.
“If police start flying a drone and start snooping and spying, it might get a bit unreasonable as they see what they can get away with,” says Jeff Orrok, chairman of the Libertarian Party of Colorado.
“Mesa County is a very private community. They want to be left alone out there,” adds Stephen Saint, who left his job with the Mesa County Sheriff’s Department in March to move to South Dakota. “You gotta worry about someone being elected sheriff and going rogue. You gotta consider that drones could get in the hands of the wrong people.”
The GAO report points out that it’s “not clear what entity should be responsible for addressing privacy concerns… Many stakeholders believe that there should be federal regulations for the types of allowable uses of UAS to specifically protect the privacy of individuals as well as rules for the conditions and types of data that UAS can collect.”
Udall, who serves on the Senate’s Select Committee on Intelligence, promises to craft such legislation.
In the absence of that kind of oversight, states are taking action. This year, legislatures in Virginia, Idaho, Montana, Tennessee and Florida passed laws limiting drone surveillance. Lawmakers in 36 other states, not including Colorado, proposed similar legislation, according to the ACLU.
By all accounts, Miller has tried to be as transparent as possible about Mesa County’s drone project. He is aware of public sensitivities about domestic drones, which he blames partly on a February 11 Time Magazine cover depicting a large military grade drone flying over an American house.
The word “drone” evokes fear among some critics that police Peeping Toms might ogle backyard sunbathers. It triggers concerns about authorities spying on recreational marijuana cultivation. And it evokes anxiety among anyone who remembers Winston Smith, the main character in George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, cowering in the one spot in his apartment where he could avoid the watch of “Big Brother,” the totalitarian dictator who ruled through mass surveillance.
“If the American public views these promising technologies in a negative light, envisioning a sky full of drones watching their every move, however exaggerated that vision may be, this industry will always be behind the eight ball and never reach its full potential,” Udall said in his speech.
Two toy-sized flying machines
Miller is eager to ease those fears by saying his department has never used its drones for surveillance, which he defines as “flying around watching people until they do something bad.” When residents call with concerns, he invites them into the sheriff’s department conference room, unzips two backpacks on the conference table and pulls out the two toy-sized flying machines.
“You should see the looks on their faces, when they’re thinking it’s a Predator drone and you show them these devices, which aren’t much more advanced than the toys you can buy at Walmart,” Miller says. “There has to be a public confidence in what we’re doing with these things. Without it, people aren’t going to trust our department.”
The department set in place a drone policy this year ensuring that “Any flight that has been deemed a search under the 4th Amendment and does not fall under court approved exceptions will require a warrant. A pilot will not conduct a mission deemed a search under the 4th Amendment without possession of a signed warrant or personal knowledge that one has been issued.”
The policy also says that “Any private or sensitive information collected that is not deemed evidence will be deleted.”
Watchdogs laud Miller and Mesa County for their transparency.
“A lot of departments aren’t nearly as willing to talk about their drones,” Musgrave said.
His group, Muckrock, and its partner, the Electronic Frontier Foundation, launched their research into domestic drones after news that the Seattle Police Department spent more than $80,000 in federal money on two surveillance drones in 2010 without approval by the city council.
“One of our concerns we had is departments are getting access without consulting their communities,” Musgrave says. “We want to make sure that there are formal, not just informal, policies in place and that the public is weighing in on whether their agencies use drones and, if so, how they should be using them.”
In Colorado and nationally, the American Civil Liberties Union is calling for oversight of police drones.
“We need to have regulations in place by policymakers, not police,” says Denise Maes, public policy director at the ACLU of Colorado.
Maes is not persuaded by arguments such as Mesa County’s that small UAVs present less of a privacy threat than do big ones.
“A drone by any other name is still a drone,” she says. “The fact that they’re getting smaller and can go unnoticed is precisely why they’re more dangerous. The smaller they are, the more they can invade your privacy.”