In a scene straight out of a James Bond spy thriller as much as anything even remotely resembling traditional law enforcement, the Seattle Police Department will soon begin adding drone patrols to its day-to-day policing efforts after gaining Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) approval to commence aerial monitoring and surveillance in targeted neighborhoods.
As one of roughly a dozen of law enforcement consortiums, academic institutions and other agencies recently granted FAA approval to begin making use of such unmanned, camera-equipped aerial vehicles, the SPD has already made two such purchases using funds from a grant funded by the Urban Areas Security initiative, prompting some to speculate airspace integration could actually begin as early as late this summer.
Count the American Civil Liberties Union among those wondering and inquiring why so fast. Late last week, the Seattle Times also reported the watchdog agency grew even more leery after top police officials refused to outline just how they intend to fully make use of such equipment, insisting training for operators has only just begun. Behind closed doors, however, some say the department has already begun making plans for using the drones as part of its routine crime enforcement operations.
“The ACLU supports the use of technology to help government accomplish its basic missions,” said ACLU spokesperson Dan Honig. “At the same time, the use of drones can really change people’s relationships with government. If the city of Seattle is going to go ahead and deploy drones, leaders need to develop clear and transparent guidelines for their use.”
As early as last December, ACLU officials published a report intensely calling into question whether current department guidelines and procedures are strong or responsible enough to “ensure such technology will not be used to trample over democratic values.”
Honig has since added that the responsibility of easing the fears and concerns of residents squarely falls on the shoulders of Mayor Mike McGinn, his administration and the city council.
“New public policy needs to be drafted,” said Honig. “The Mayor and the City Council need to be the ones to decide what kind of information can be recorded and scrutinized by authorities,” he said, adding that public perception is allowing drones greater access “takes the country a large step closer to a surveillance society.”
Critics also charge that in using unmanned drones, the moral and humane element of the situation stands to be completely taken out of the equation in tracking any potential suspect, thereby fostering an even more ruthlessly, barbaric type society.
A spokesperson for Mayor McGinn has since gone on record as insisting “the mayor doesn’t want to get ahead” of the SPD in responding or speculating how drones the devices will be used. Added SPD Sgt. Sean Whitcomb: “The idea that this is going to be used to infringe in people’s privacy, that is simply not the case.”
And yet the equipment slated for usage rates as one of a kind. Unmanned aircraft can hover on high for as long as 20 hours an outing, meaning that any targeted neighborhood or vicinity can be under uninterrupted surveillance for nearly an entire day at a time. No other aircraft in the federal government arsenal can operate for such extended periods.
Comparing it to a remote control toy airplane frequently flown in neighborhood parks, Whitcomb added that drones will be limited to 400 feet in altitude and must remain in sight of the operator. “The idea is that it is very similar to the bomb robot that we have… it’s just a remote control device and this one happens to be aerial,” he said.
Drones typically come in a variety of sizes, ranging from large aircraft with 116-foot wingspans to tiny craft that can weigh less than an ounce. Under new FAA rules, civilian drones must weigh less than 55 pounds and the 3.5 pound Draganflyer X6 Helicopter Tech model thought to be used in Seattle surveillance carries a cost of $41,000 and is operated with a handheld controller and two joysticks. It also has cameras that take still pictures, videos and infrared shots that can be viewed live.
As Whitcomb spoke, Kendle Allen, sheriff of nearby Stevens County, intently listened— even if he clearly remained somewhat unconvinced.
“There is always mixed feelings about something flying above you,” he said. “We still haven’t decided to ask for any such assistance.”