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Thursday, July 17, 2014

UAV? What UAV?

By Ernie Stephens, Editor-at-Large

Just as the Pentagon saw the advantages of using remotely piloted vehicle systems (RPVS), also known as unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), to serve soldiers on the battlefield, law enforcement agencies saw a system that could just as easily serve officers out in the community. Builders of unmanned aerial systems (UAS) – the animal you get when you bring a UAV, optics, and other features together into one machine – saw it, too. And they were more than happy to build simpler systems for state and local law enforcement agencies to buy.

If money were no object, I’d bet there isn’t one police or sheriff’s department out there that wouldn’t like to have a helicopter of its own, or at least have one it could gain quick access to when needed. But since 95 percent of all departments are small, a $5,000 to $100,000 UAV can be the next best thing. So, small law enforcement agencies began buying them in lieu of helicopters.

Enter FAA, the UAV operator’s equivalent of the mother who won’t let her sons play catch in living room. FAA doesn’t want UAVs crashing into manned aircraft or people on the ground, the same way Mom doesn’t want a Frisbee crashing into the vase Aunt Martha gave her. So, for years it has been struggling with even the basics on how to regulate them.

I can relate to FAA’s fear of miniature aircraft colliding with big ones, because there used to be a radio control flying club in the county where I worked. My partner and I didn’t know their little “airport” was in the vicinity of a search we were commencing, nor was it obvious from the air. But shortly after arriving in the area, I saw something the size of an eagle coming toward us about the same time the R/C pilot flying it saw us coming over the trees. There was no collision, and the R/C pilot readily yielded to our presence, but it taught me to look down more when in that neighborhood. Not that I didn’t get FAA’s point before, but having an R/C airplane, which is really a UAV, pop up on me that suddenly made me better understand FAA’s point about trying to keep them from getting out of hand. But I also want to believe that matters of public safety should trump some regulations, the same way a police car with lights and sirens can trump most traffic laws.

FAA has yet to implement any permanent, A-to-Z rules regarding UAVs, even for police operations. What they have done is create “policies” to help keep a handle on unmanned machines while rulemaking is ongoing. For example, FAA has implemented a variety of policies regarding when, were, and how UAVs can fly. FAA has also issued certificates of authorization (COAs) to police agencies blessing certain kinds of operations in specific areas. But ironically, a federal judge ruling in a case against Raphael Pirker, who had received a $10,000 fine for flying his UAV as a commercial venture, said that FAA had no jurisdiction to issue him that fine, since only a policy exists, not a regulation. I’m no lawyer, but that suggests that the COAs that FAA has issued various police and sheriff’s departments aren’t worth the paper they’re printed on, at least in terms of any directives therein.

So, you now have some chiefs and sheriffs out there who have purchased UAVs to use as quasi-police helicopters. But from the phone calls I’ve made, quite a few of them are reluctant to use them because FAA hasn’t issued any solid regs for them to follow.

Our comrades at the Grand Forks (ND) Sheriff’s Department, as noted elsewhere in this issue of Rotor & Wing, have decided to work with FAA through COAs while things are being ironed out. But there’s one more element to this UAV picture: public perception. I still don’t entirely understand why so many people are okay with police helicopters – and surveillance cameras on every commercial building, for that matter – watching their activities, while being opposed to a police UAV doing the same thing. Is there a difference between a Bell 407 looking for a fleeing felon, and a quadrotor UAV doing the same? Is the crew of an Enstrom 480 looking over a privacy fence all right, but the camera on a UAV piloted by an officer 100 feet away isn’t? Other than Grand Forks, which has had little pushback from the public and FAA, a significant number of agencies just don’t want to talk about their UAV programs. Between the absence of regulations and the public’s general discomfort with the technology, it’s no wonder their response to inquiries is simply, “UAV? What UAV?”

Related: Unmanned News

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