Miami-Dade using unmanned aircraft to fight crime

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Miami-Dade hoping to use unmanned aircraft to fight crime

Palm Beach Post Staff Writer

Thursday, March 27, 2008

MIAMI — Today, Al-Qaeda terrorists and other U.S. enemies in Afghanistan and Iraq have to worry about unmanned American aircraft – drones – tracking them from the skies.

Someday, South Florida bad guys may have that same concern.

The Miami-Dade Police Department has asked the Federal Aviation Administration for permission to use a small unmanned surveillance aircraft for law enforcement.

The department says, if granted permission, it would employ the drone only in “tactical” situations that present a danger to officers on the ground.

According to the FAA, Miami is one of only two big-city police departments in the country that have applied for the permits. Houston is the other.

“It won’t be used for patrol or for traffic,” said Detective Juan Villalba, Miami-Dade police spokesman. “It would be used in SWAT team situations – like someone barricaded in a house, or where a hostage has been taken. It might be used to try to determine how heavily armed a person might be. It will not be armed itself.”

But the FAA says Miami residents shouldn’t expect to see drones in the air over Coconut Grove, Coral Gables or any other inhabited area until the technology advances.

“Unmanned aircraft would need to have the same ability to see and avoid other aircraft that manned craft have, and right now the technology does not exist to meet those criteria,” said FAA spokesman Les Dorr, speaking from Washington.

Dorr said Miami-Dade police may get a permit to test a drone over an uninhabited area, such as the Everglades. But to use the drone in police work over an urban area – especially a busy air corridor such as Miami-Dade – it would need a permit, which will be hard to come by.

“We have a responsibility to protect the public, both people on the ground and other aircraft,” Dorr said.

The drone that interests the Miami-Dade police is called the MAV – Micro-Air Vehicle – and it is made by Honeywell International. The radio-controlled unit weighs 14 pounds without fuel aboard and operates in the air like a helicopter.

“It can hover and go straight down or up, for example,” police spokesman Villalba said.

According to Honeywell, the MAV can operate at a maximum of 10,500 feet and at a top speed of 50 knots per hour. It can be carried in a large backpack and be deployed in five minutes.

In September, a Honeywell official estimated that the MAV – including the aircraft and its ground control system – would cost about $250,000.

“We wouldn’t fly it to the site of a problem,” Villalba said. “We would drive it to that site, deploy it and then pack it up.”

A video on the Honeywell International Web site shows the MAV in action in a “hover and stare mission.” The video is accompanied by music reminiscent of Mission: Impossible.

“It looks a bit like an office trash can,” Villalba said of the MAV.

That is true, but it looks like a trash can with legs, gas tanks and cameras, and resembles a poor cousin of the Star Wars robot character R2-D2. The video shows the craft flying at treetop height and higher and also relatively close to the ground.

Dorr said he thought the Houston Police Department had applied to test the MAV over ranchland far from the city.

Villalba said Miami-Dade police hoped to get a permit to test the MAV over the Everglades sometime this year. He said he understood the second permit, which would allow its use in law enforcement operations, might be tough to come by.

Civil liberties organizations have raised concerns over whether the use of such craft for police surveillance could violate citizens’ privacy.

Villalba reiterated that the police would not use the drones except in SWAT operations.

“Some people have referred to it as a spy craft, but it won’t be used for anything like that either,” Villalba said. “It will be used to protect the lives of officers.”

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