In nearly all the 50 U.S. states, lawmakers have taken aim at law-enforcement's use, or potential use, of unmanned aerial systems (UAS). As of mid-July, the American Civil Liberties Union was tracking legislation proposed in 42 states, enacted in six states, and still active or pending in 27 states.
At least one leading researcher in the field is asking for a little time and a little space before clamping down on what he and others believe could put useful and non-threatening technology into the hands of small police departments across the country.
"Like most technologies it needs to mature a little bit before legislatures try to control it," says Allan Frazier, an assistant professor in the University of North Dakota's aerospace department who can claim not only a raft of FAA pilot ratings including air transport pilot, helicopters and gliders, but 33 years as a police officer and deputy sheriff in three states.
"If you start enacting laws now to control small UAS, it’s like telling the Wright Brothers they can’t do test flights at Kitty Hawk," Frazier says. "We don’t know what we don’t know unless we’re able to utilize the technology."
Frazier helps run a collaborative research project at UND involving the Grand Forks County Sheriff's Office and small UAS manufacturers Aerovironment and Draganfly. The team is making air vehicles available to agencies in a 16-county area of northeastern North Dakota free of charge, thanks to grant funding aimed at developing the concept of operations for UAS in civil airspace and in a law-enforcement and public safety setting, creating the right training curriculum for officers and pilots and evaluating how effective the systems are in actual police and public safety work.
So far the research is pointing the way towards safety, community involvement and transparency, along with a checks-and-balances dispatching system that ensures compliance with FAA and university rules, ethical standards and the public's expectations for how unmanned systems will, and won't, be used.
Frazier believes there's real opportunity.
There are 19,000 law-enforcement agencies throughout the U.S., and some 80% of them employ fewer than 100 officers -- the benchmark at which an agency can typically begin thinking about using some sort of aerial asset. For these agencies, small, portable UAS can provide a cost-effective way to conduct lost-person searches, assess disaster damage, document crime and traffic accident scenes, help monitor traffic at major events and yes, help chase bad guys if the need arises.
Proof-of-concept work and research is underway in seven states with nine public-safety agencies, and a lot of questions need to be answered, not only by law-enforcement but by the courts. So far the legal system has not had to deal with the Constitutional questions raised by using this technology -- how does a UAS operation fit into the bounds of what constitutes improper search and seizure under the Fourth Amendment? -- but Frazier predicts that it will.
Meanwhile, premature action by states could cut off development not only of technologies but of policies and procedures to ensure a balance between privacy and public safety.
Frazier tells attendees at AirVenture 2013 in Oshkosh, however, that federal standards will likely prevail.
"I think it’s a federal issue and I think it’s preempted by federal statutes," he says. "The states, quite frankly, have little business dealing with something that occupies our airspace."