NPR "Xeni Tech": surveillance drones over LA skies

UAVs have long been used by American military forces in Iraq, Afghanistan, and elsewhere — but now, law enforcement agencies back home are exploring uses here in the US. In a recent House hearing, police agencies and private entities argued for more widespread use, and the FAA has launched a new office for drone-related regulations.

Just this week, the Los Angeles Sheriff's Department began using a drone called SkySeer for rescue operations and tracking "persons of interest" during foot pursuits. 

NPR "Day to Day" producer Rob Sachs and I traveled to an undisclosable location east of LA for a private demo of SkySeer with Commander Charles "Sid" Heal, head of the LASD's technology exploration project. Representatives of Chang Industries, the small defense contracting firm that developed SkySeer, were also on hand.

When the craft reached about 250 feet above ground, we couldn't hear it, and could barely see it. On board the SkySeer's four-pound body is a GPS tracking system and tiny cameras that shoot digital video, then send it wirelessly back to the ground. Heal says the plan is to send that footage back to a networked command and control center, where deputies will monitor and steer the craft accordingly.  Video may also be introduced as evidence in criminal trials.

At about $30K per unit, the drones cost the LASD much less than helicopters, which cost $2-3 million (and sometimes as much as $2800 an hour to operate). The big upside: UAVs can safely get much closer to hazardous situations than an aircraft with a human inside.

While the drone's purpose may be serious, it looks a lot like a radio-controlled hobby aircraft. Sam De La Torre and Victor Torres, two of the drone's designers, told me they both grew up as big RC buffs.

"When I was a kid, my mom used to always give me a hard time about how much I flew model airplanes," Sam said, "'It's not like anyone's ever gonna pay you to fly those things!', she'd tell me." Well, not anymore.

As law enforcement agencies throughout the US consider more widespread use (firefighting, pipeline monitoring, border patrol ops), concerns over civilian privacy and air security are likely to increase. Imagine fleets of UAVs in your neighborhood, tracking where you go and what you do, perhaps sharing that data with other government agencies — not a happy thought.

Commander Heal argues that's not the LASD's plan. He says his agency doesn't intend to use the drones for general surveillance, and initial use will be for search and rescue. "We're not flying it anywhere we're not already allowed to fly a helicopter," said Heal, "This just allows us to get closer to dangerous situations more safely." 

Either way, expect debate to grow. Link to "Xeni Tech" archived audio on NPR "Day to Day," and here's a Flickr set with snapshots from the demo (some shot by me, some shot by Commander Heal).

See also: "Drone aircraft may prowl U.S. skies," by Declan McCullagh at CNET, Link.