September 03, 2012
Credit: Credit: Draganflyer Innovations
Graham Warwick Washington
A suspected theft of cows in North Dakota has become the genesis for a new pilot program aimed at making it easier for local police agencies to win approval to operate unmanned aircraft systems (UAS).
The University of North Dakota (UND) is launching an unusual joint program with the Grand Forks County Sheriff's Department that they hope will establish a template for law-enforcement use of UAS. Planned to begin in early October, pending FAA approvals, the program will see UND Aviation Department personnel operating up to four small fixed- and rotary-wing UAS in support of the police anywhere within 16 counties in northeast North Dakota. Supported by a university grant and industry donations, the research will determine the applicability and feasibility of using small UAS for law enforcement and develop an operating concept for police departments, says Alan Frazier, assistant professor at UND.
A key element of the program involves obtaining certificates of authorization (COA) from the FAA allowing the university to operate the small UAS on behalf of the police during the day, at or below 400-ft. altitude, anywhere in the 16-county area. This approach, already pioneered in Colorado by the Mesa County Sheriff's Department, should make it easier to get approval to operate UAS compared with the current process of applying to the FAA for an emergency COA for a specific mission.
The joint program was sparked by a 2010 incident in which Grand Forks police called in support from a Customs and Border Patrol General Atomics Predator B UAS to assist with the arrest of a heavily armed farmer suspected of stealing cows. “We tried to get an emergency COA to assist the sheriff based on the university's existing COAs, but the FAA balked, saying it was not acceptable to use our UAS to support a law-enforcement agency,” says Frazier.
But that changed in February, when Congress directed the FAA to open national airspace to UAS by the end of 2015. The move has sparked debate about whether the use of such systems by law enforcement threatens individual privacy (AW&ST Aug. 6, p. 49). In August, the International Association of Chiefs of Police adopted guidelines for the responsible use of UAS. “The more the law-enforcement community, privacy advocates, government and other stakeholders work together to address issues such as privacy, the faster we can unlock the potential,” says Michael Toscano, president and CEO of the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International.
Under the new program in North Dakota, the county Sheriff's Department has applied for four COAs covering two different types of UAS operated by UND: a 4.2-lb. hand-launched, fixed-wing AeroVironment Raven; and a 3.3-lb. hexrotor Draganflyer X6. Two COAs, covering small areas needed for training, have been granted, and flight demonstrations required for FAA approval of the operational COAs are planned for mid-September.
UND, meanwhile, is adding an AeroVironment Qube 5.5-lb. quadrotor and a hand-launched Micro-UAS made by Goodrich (now part of United Technologies), which it plans to make available to the Sheriff's Department. “We are adding them to expand the depth of our research,” says Frazier. “We intend to be candid on the capabilities and limitations of UAS, and part of our agreement with the manufacturers is that we will be an objective third party in saying whether a UAS is appropriate for this type of mission.”