Canyon County’s new surveillance drone raises privacy questions
By KATY MOELLER — [email protected]
Posted: 12:00am on Apr 26, 2012
0426 Local drone.JPG
The battery-powered Draganflyer X-6 will be a helpful device for searches and won’t be misused, officials say. PROVIDED BY DRAGANFLY INNOVATIONS INC.
LinkLearn more about Draganfly Innovations Inc.
In a few weeks, the county will be getting a high-tech tool that few municipalities in the country have.
The Draganflyer X-6 is a small aircraft that looks like a giant bug or tiny helicopter. It’s about 3 feet long and weighs about 2 pounds.
It took the county six months to get Federal Aviation Administration approval to use the $33,400 drone, and it was paid for with a Department of Homeland Security grant, according to Steve Donahue, chief deputy for the Caldwell Fire Department.
Was there a specific incident that triggered the county’s desire for the device, which some fear will allow the government to invade people’s privacy?
No. Donahue said the county was simply looking ahead and wanting to be “cutting-edge.
“Everybody is always hurting for money and personnel. We’re looking at how can we do things smarter and faster,” he said.
Donahue said dispatcher Christine McPartlan researched the drones and applied for the grant.
Under what circumstances will the drone be used?
Aerial photos of hazardous materials spills. Car crash reconstruction. Locating missing people in canals, rivers and difficult terrain.
“We don’t own a helicopter,” said Donahue, and bringing in medical or military aircraft for searches is expensive and time-consuming.
What are the restrictions on the drone?
The FAA must be notified before it’s used. “We’re limited to (a height of) 400 feet,” Donahue said, noting that it probably will fly between 100 and 200 feet.
Operators have to stay within a mile of the drone and be able to see it — part of the reason they won’t fly it at night, Donahue said.
It has a limited battery life — about 15 minutes — before it must be recharged. If the drone loses contact with the controlling device, it can land itself — but operators have to be able to see it to find it.
For public safety reasons, they won’t fly it over crowds. And because of its short battery life, it won’t be used over large bodies of water.
What kinds of images can the drone take?
It’s equipped with a digital camera. Donahue said it’s possible to stream video from the drone to a hand-held device or a laptop that comes with the kit.
Will it ever be used to spy on people?
“It’s not going to loiter over any area, taking pictures of anything,” Donahue said. “I’m with the fire department. I’m using it for public safety.”
What if the police request to use it?
“They have to have a tactical objective they want to meet,” he said.
Who is trained to use the drone?
Donahue, McPartlan and county fleet manager Mark Tolman were flown to a two-day training last week in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan (at a cost of $4,250), where the Draganflyer is manufactured.
“You have to be qualified with the FAA” to fly drones, Donahue said. “You have to be a pilot or have been through the ground school.”
He and Tolman are licensed pilots; McPartlan has been through ground school.
All will train with the device a minimum of 10 hours a month to develop and maintain their skills.
Will it be deployed elsewhere in the Treasure Valley?
“It’s a resource from Homeland Security, and we will make it available,” Donahue said.
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