Monday, June 04, 2007

Police launch eye-in-the-sky drone above LA

"Do we really want to live in a society where our backyard barbecues will be open to police scrutiny?"
12:37 19 June 2006
NewScientist.com news service
NewScientistTech Staff and AFP

A drone aircraft was launched into the smoggy sky over Los Angeles on Friday, bringing technology more commonly associated with combat zones to urban policing.

The unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV), which looks like a remote-controlled airplane and weighs about 2.3 kilograms, is a prototype being tested by the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department.

Police say the drone, called the SkySeer, could carry out dangerous tasks and free up crewed helicopters for other missions.

"This technology could be used to find missing children, search for lost hikers, or survey a fire zone," says Sid Heal, head of the Technology Exploration Project of the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department. "The ideal outcome for us is when this technology becomes instrumental in saving lives."

Police say the SkySeer, made by Octatron of Florida, US, could help them catch suspects fleeing on foot and hiding on rooftops. The drone comes equipped with low-light and infrared vision and can fly at speeds of up to 48 kilometres (30 miles) per hour for 70 minutes at a time.

Collapsible design
The plane collapses and fits into a shoulder pack smaller than a golf bag. This portability could be a big advantage for law enforcement. "It's basically a high-tech kite that field officers could set up in a matter of minutes," says Heal.

A small camera capable of tilting and panning is fixed to the underside of the drone and sends video directly to a laptop command station. Once launched, the craft can fly autonomously by following a fixed flight pattern, defined by global positioning system (GPS) coordinates.

The stealthiness of the SkySeer is a major advantage, according to police. "The plane is virtually silent and invisible," Heal says. "It will give us a vertical perspective that we have never had."

The Los Angeles Sheriff's Department operates a fleet of 18 helicopters, which cost between $3 million and $5 million each. By contrast, each SkySeer costs between $25,000 and $30,000. Heal says police helicopters are in almost constant use, and he believes the SkySeer could alleviate some of this pressure.

Unmanned surveillance craft may become the norm in urban policing, Heal adds. "I could see this drone technology replacing some demand for conventional aircraft 10 years into the future."

Privacy concerns
For some, however, the prospect of unseen airborne surveillance is unsettling. "Do we really want to live in a society where our backyard barbecues will be open to police scrutiny?" says Beth Givens of the Privacy Rights Clearinghouse, a campaign group based in San Diego, US.

But Heal says such privacy concerns are unwarranted as surveillance is already near ubiquitous: "These days you can't go anywhere without a camera watching you, whether you're in a grocery store or walking down the street."

For now, the sheriffs will continue testing SkySeer to determine its capabilities, though Friday's field test did not go entirely to plan. The SkySeer banked left at an elevation of about 91 metres, then took a sudden nosedive and crashed in a vacant lot a few hundred metres from reporters. "There must have been some sort of communication interference," said Sam De La Torre of Octatron as he inspected the multicoloured wires and circuitry spilling out of the damaged drone.

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