Police see drones as cheap eye in the sky

Draganflyer X6 hovering low
Draganflyer X6 hovering close to the ground carrying a low light camera.
Courtesy of Draganfly Innovations Inc.

If Al Frazier has his way, law enforcement agencies one day will use unmanned aircraft as commonly as their dog patrols and in much the same way--to help officers with everyday policing, whether that means searching a cornfield for fugitives or scoping out a property for hazards before a drug raid.

Frazier, an assistant professor at the University of North Dakota and part time Grand Forks County sheriff's deputy, is on the verge of launching a program that would give sheriffs in 16 North Dakota counties access to two, and perhaps four, drones for uses like those and more.

"This is about safety, not just for officers, but citizens, too," said Frazier, who also ran air support for the police department in Glendale, Cal. "Let's say we have a violent suspect at the end of a pursuit, a robbery suspect who fled from the police. The sooner we take that person into custody, the safer it is for the public."

With law enforcement budgets shrinking, technology is playing a greater role in policing. And for agencies that want air coverage, a camera-equipped drone, at a cost of around $50,000, can be a cheaper alternative to owning and operating a piloted airplane or helicopter. Minnesota law enforcement officials have expressed some interest, but without question, North Dakota is where the action is.

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Frazier's drone project, designed to help develop guidelines for police use, could launch as early as this fall and last for up to two years, he said. In that time, "Hopefully we'll have developed a concept of operations, a useful document we can disseminate to law enforcement agencies stating what worked and what didn't. And they can decide whether they want to jump off the bank and dedicate their own resources.

"It's a cool tool, especially for smaller agencies because in their wildest dreams they are never going to be able to afford a manned aircraft," said Frazier.

Not unexpectedly, the project has drawn controversy, especially among staff at the University of North Dakota (UND), a partner in the endeavor. The university would lease the drones to the Grand Forks County sheriff, but school employees would be required to operate the craft. Deputies would monitor the drone video feeds. In July, after a round of discussions, the UND established a committee to review the arrangement and decide what kinds of missions they should support.

"It's a cool tool, especially for smaller agencies because in their wildest dreams they are never going to be able to afford a manned aircraft."

"Basically, I guess we don't want to be seen as a university that facilitates invasion of privacy," said UND Associate Dean Paul Lindseth. "So we're trying to decide if there is too much risk involved in that."

The school is a leader in drone research. It was the first in the nation to establish an unmanned aircraft systems undergraduate major. In fact, the UND has been operating drones since 2005 for agricultural and flood research. At issue is whether to add law enforcement research to the repertoire.

Earlier this year, the federal government passed legislation that opened the door wide to the domestic, non-military use of drones. And since then, people have been scrambling to figure out who will use them and how they will interact with--and avoid--the glut of piloted aircraft in the sky. "The rules haven't been issued yet," said Lindseth. "They are being vetted through FAA (Federal Aviation Administration) procedures. The University of North Dakota is helping do that vetting."

Law enforcement is expected to be a growth area for drone sales and police and sheriffs envision many scenarios where an unmanned eye in the sky might be useful, whether to find a hiker lost in the mountains or to track a thief running through an urban neighborhood.

Alan Frazier, Assistant Professor
Alan Frazier, an assistant professor at the University of North Dakota and part time Grand Forks County sheriff's deputy.
Courtesy of University of North Dakota

But complicating matters are the public's well-documented concerns about personal privacy. Yes, police already can fly a piloted airplane over a house and view the rooftop and yard. And often they can view the very same roof and yard by satellite. But that sort of observation becomes easier and potentially more ubiquitous with the use of drones.

"Most people hold the Fourth Amendment sacred," said Frazier. "It protects me and you. Can you erode it with this? Yes, absolutely you can." Yet, he thinks the technology is self-limiting. "Making the observation is easier," he said, "but with the flow-through, you still have to dedicate ground personnel to go in and (make the arrest)."

"We don't want to be seen as a university that facilitates invasion of privacy."

One of Lindseth's concerns is that if a police agency is sued over the use of a drone in an arrest, the university could be held liable also. He points to the case of Rodney Brossart, a farmer in Lakota, a small city just an hour from Grand Forks, who was arrested last year with the help of a surveillance drone after a police standoff . It was perhaps the first such arrest of an American on U.S. soil. Brossart filed a court challenge, claiming "outrageous governmental conduct," but a district judge ruled in early August against throwing out the charges against him.

Obviously, there are questions to be answered before drones are used en masse by local law enforcement. But one thing seems certain, they will be used. In April, the Electronic Frontier Foundation obtained and released a list of entities authorized by the FAA to fly domestic drones. The list includes universities and research organizations, but also police departments in places like Arlington, Texas; Seattle, Washington; and Mesa County, Colorado.

Law enforcement agencies in Minnesota are also eyeing the possibilities. The Polk County Sheriff's department was involved in Frazier's project early on. It dropped out when it looked like the cost would be prohibitive, said Sheriff Barb Erdman. "(Al Frazier) had called together sheriffs on both sides of the river to explore a number of possibilities," she said. "To look at, what can the two states do in terms of sharing resources (for air support). What it came down to for us, at that time, we had to pledge a certain number of dollars toward it. At that point, we didn't feel that was something we could commit to. We backed off."

Erdman said there were other considerations as well, like the fact that if her department wanted to use one of the drones, they'd have to go to North Dakota to get it. "For us, we are a large county. The time factor is something that was looked at. Unless you have an incident that's lengthy and unfolds over a period of many hours, by the time you are able to secure it and get it into place, your situation may be over."

"I'm not saying, 'never,'" Erdman said. "But there is the cost factor and the training factor. In a rural county, we don't have limitless resources, so we have to pick and choose where to put our dollars. The possibilities are endless with technology, but you still have to be able to maintain your core services and be able to pay for them."

"It will be interesting to sit back and take a look at how it goes," she said.

In Frazier's ideal world, a drone, which may fit into a large suitcase, would be a constant companion to a specially-trained officer or deputy. The mobile drone unit, much like a canine unit, would be deployed as necessary, according to established policies and procedures. "It could be set up at a moment's notice," he said.

Drones could be useful in a number of scenarios, he said, such as when the foot pursuit of a suspect becomes untenable. "Utilizing the aircraft to search a field or neighborhood is the poster child application for it." Another use might be to survey the damage caused by a major traffic accident, or to use drone footage to recreate how the accident unfolded. "You could put it up over a meth lab and gather information on the best points of entry, the likely escape routes, and the hazards that exist like the pit bull in the back yard." Drones could also help when police are serving search warrants, to detect danger or the instance when "a suspect splits out the front door."

In rural areas, Frazier said a drone could be especially useful as a stand-in second officer or backup in a community with minimal police coverage. "They could use it with an alarm call," he said. Let's say it's a Saturday night and an alarm goes off for a business on Main Street. A walk around the perimeter reveals nothing amiss. "But there is a potential the burglars came in via the roof. If [the officer] had an unmanned aircraft, he or she could put it up for a five minute flight and check the roof and make sure there are no hatches or air conditioning ducts removed."

"That is the ideal deployment," he said. "To have it integrated into the normal patrol operations of the department."

One use Frazier doesn't endorse is for spotting traffic infractions. "I don't believe it would be cost effective."

Nor would the mass issuing of speeding tickets do much to build good will toward drones, he said. "I wouldn't want to see the technology tainted for more important applications by someone being upset by the fact that they are a representative in the statehouse and their daughter got a ticket from an unmanned aircraft."