On Monday the Federal Aviation Administration is supposed to release new guidelines on how law enforcement and emergency management agencies can use lightweight drones, also known as unmanned aircraft systems.
It's expected that the proposed rules will clear up how high and far police and first-responders such as fire departments can fly drones, and what kind of training pilots controlling the drones must receive. The rules will apply to drones weighing less than 4.4 pounds and flown at altitudes below 400 feet. President Barack Obama signed a FAA reauthorization bill in February that fast-tracked the process for first-responders to get permission to use drones, but the the FAA has delayed releasing the guidelines in the past.
Right now only hobbyists who fly drones at low altitudes and within eyesight are allowed to use them. But in January, the LAPD warned real estate agencies not to use them after one agency was caught flying drones to take pictures and video of homes for sale.
Some agencies got special clearance from the FAA for testing or research purposes fly drones now. Cal FIRE was given temporary permission to test scanner technology with NASA to provide real-time wildfire imaging data.
The L.A. County Sheriff’s Department has been testing some drones in the field in concert with California drone manufacturers. Commander Bob Osborne with the Sheriff’s Office Homeland Security Division said they have not purchased any drones or equipment for one, but are awaiting the new rules. He said small drones could be helpful in barricaded suspect stand-offs or mountainous rescue missions.
“It would be really nice to fly a small unmanned air system down to take some pictures for us, to send some video back to up so that we would know what we are getting into before we rappel a thousand feet down a cliff,” Osborne said.
The Sheriff’s department already uses ground robotics in its special weapons and arson explosives teams to investigate bomb threats.
California drone developer AeroVironment first built small drones in the late 1980s for military reconnaissance teams. But the company has developed smaller drones, such as the Qube, a three-foot wide, approximately five pound remotely controlled unmanned aircraft system that carries a video camera, for law enforcement and rescue teams. AeroVironment has demonstrated its models for several local California public safety agencies said Steve Gitlin, vice president of Investor Relations.
Gitlin said small drones won’t replace helicopters but could be an extra tool for smaller police departments that don’t have the money to buy a helicopter and pay a team to run it.
“They’re going to put in the truck of a squad car the ability to get eyes over a situation right then and right there,” Giltin said. “It’s the immediacy of the information that these systems produce compared to having to call in and trying to get a helicopter to come in from a distant location.”
Gitlin said drones could also be used in agriculture for crop dusting, by news organizations and for real-time traffic information.
The FAA is also supposed to craft guidelines on for other commercial drone uses by 2015. Critics say the FAA is moving to fast. They warn of Fourth Amendment privacy violations.