FAA grounds LA Sheriffs' plans for "spy plane drones"

Plans by the Los Angeles Sheriff's Department's to use small, RC-controlled drones for surveillance and rescue efforts have been grounded by the FAA. I filed an early report about the "Skyseers" for NPR back in April, with details and photos in this BB post. Snip from an AP article on the FAA's spyplane beef:

The Federal Aviation Administration won't authorize the drones until it investigates a demonstration the sheriff's department conducted last week, FAA spokeswoman Laura Brown said. "I wouldn't want to term us as peeved, but we were definitely surprised," Brown said.

She said agency officials told the sheriff's department it needed their authorization before flying the drones to ensure they don't interfere with other aircraft. The department could face disciplinary action over the demonstration. Sheriff's officials described the controversy as a simple misunderstanding.

"A private citizen can go to the store and buy one of those model airplanes and fly them around. But because we're doing it as a public service, we have to deal with the FAA?" said Sheriff's Cmdr. Sid Heal.

Image courtesy of Commander Heal, LASD. I'd have to go back to my original transcripts from the April reports to check, but if memory serves — my NPR producer Rob Sachs and I asked Commander Heal about the FAA issue, and the sense among LASD officials was that this was a non-issue. While press accounts refer to the "SkySeer" unmanned drones as "planes," they're more like very small, kite-weight model airplanes. Other than the optics and the high-tech control system, the thing looked absolutely identical to the hobbyists' toys you might see at a flying field on the weekend. During the "SkySeer" demo Commander Heal arranged for us, the device flew maybe 25 feet high, tops. Hardly the altitude where interference with aircraft would seem to be an issue. But IANAL and I am not an FAA official, so — /shrugs/. (Thanks, Jim Graham!)