Out with the Old and in with the Drone
UAVs’ ability to fly autonomously through a pre-programmed grid pattern could also provide constant support for police throughout all hours of the day. This would prove particularly useful in cases with missing persons, as every hour counts towards saving a life.
With the Sheriff’s drone program costing a meager $10,000 to $15,000 since its inception in 2009, all signs point to implementation, as this cost effective technological advancement should help bolster police and rescue-team efforts.
But while the drones grant the Sherriff’s Department an extra pair of eyes in the sky, they have proven less than apt when assigned to real life search and rescue missions.
In two separate investigations last year – one involving lost hikers and, the other, a suicidal woman who disappeared – the deployed drones were unsuccessful in locating their whereabouts.
Miller admits, “We’ve never found anyone yet.” He adds, “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.”
The drone’s battery life is another limiting factor. Falcon UAVs are only able to fly for around an hour before requiring a recharge.
Despite failing to locate the missing people, the drones did cover huge expanses of land that would have otherwise required countless man-hours to replicate, overall accelerating police efforts and saving precious time. And with operation costs for the Falcon running between three to ten percent of a helicopter’s, it does make financial sense to continue investing in the project.
Along with strong public support for the use of drones as search-and-rescue tools, according to a survey by the Monmouth University Polling Institute, their adoption by police and rescue forces are only likely to increase in time – regardless of the Falcon UAVs’ mixed effectiveness.
The Sherriff’s Department has also used the drones to capture images of crime scenes, monopolizing on the drones’ aerial photography. Compiled and rendered on computers by experts afterwards, these photos allow law enforcement to view crimes from whole new angles.
Imagine the police with access to accurate 3D interactive models of where and how a crime was committed. “Zoom and enhance” may cease to be a ridiculous tech trick on CSI and actually take shape in real future police work. This could be the greatest thing to happen to crime fighting since DNA profiling.
Chris Miser, owner of the company, Aurora, designing the Falcon drones, has even tested his UAVs to monitor illegal poaching on animal reserves in South Africa. The possibilities are endless.
Public Concern Over Drones
With all their potential for good, the Sheriff’s drone-adoption has met considerable backlash. In the aforementioned Monmouth University poll, 80% of people voiced concerns over the possibility of drones infringing on their privacy. And perhaps rightfully so.
Suspicions are undoubtedly spurred on by recent revelations about NSA spy programs and the constant stream of top-secret news released to the public through Wikileaks. High-tech drones equipped with powerful cameras flying about would likely intensify those fears.
Many are even left asking whether the use of domestic drones by the Sherriff’s Department is all completely legal.
“Mesa County has done everything by the book with the Federal Aviation Administration” says Shawn Musgrave of Muckrock, an American nonprofit group that monitors the proliferation of domestic drones. Though Musgrave does stress, “the book is pretty thin in terms of federal requirements.”
That means the Sherriff’s drones are effectively allowed to roam free almost everywhere within the country’s 3,300 square miles. “We can fly them pretty much anywhere we want,” says Miller.
They are not granted complete freedom, however.