Evenin' All - Unmanned on the Beat
6:15 PM on Dec 28, 2011
As the FAA edges closer to releasing for public comment its first rules for allowing small unmanned aircraft into national airspace, one sector straining at the leash to use UAVs is law enforcement.
There have been a couple of FAA-sanctioned trails of UAVs by the police: in Miami, using Honywell's T-Hawk VTOL hover-and-stare micro-UAV to help SWAT teams spot shooters; and in Houston, using Insitu's ScanEagle to surveil hurricane evacuation routes. There have also been cases of police departments acquiring UAVs only to have the FAA jump on them for unauthorized use. So the market is certainly there.
In October, AeroVironment announced its was offering its Qube VTOL micro-UAV for evaluation by law enforcement and other public-safety agencies. The Qube is a derivative of the Shrike quadrotor UAV, developed under DARPA's Stealthy Persistent Perch and Stare program, and is designed to comply with the expected FAA rules allowing use of small unmanned aircraft in civil airspace.
Packaged to fit in the trunk of a patrol car, the 5.5-lb Qube can be assembled in under 5 min and will fly for 40 min on battery power, controlled from a ruggedised tablet and equipped with both color and thermal cameras. You can see Qube in action in this rather over-the-top promotional video.
Now Aurora Flight Sciences has received a contract from the US Air Force Research Laboratory to demonstrate how its Skate small UAV can perform missions typical of a police officer "walking the beat" in a city. The idea of the Urban Beat Cop program is to show that a UAV can be used to provide the same observational familiarity with an urban area as a police officer walking the streets.
Photo: Aurora Flight Systems
The 2-lb Skate can take off and land vertically, hover, perch and stare, but flies like a fixed-wing aircraft in forward flight thanks to a flying-wing airframe and a pair of thrust-vectoring propellers. These also provide high agility for maneuvering at street level. Endurance is 1 hour, says Aurora.
Under the 12-month Urban Beat Cop pogram, the company will flight-demonstrate advanced video processing and a parasitic recharging system required for the autonomous perch and stare mission. AFRL has been working on recharging a UAV by perching on a power line and using electromagnetic induction.
While law enforcement's interest in unmanned arcraft is clear, it is not without controversy, as illustrated by reaction to the recent LA Times story revealing how Customs and Border Patrol Predator B UAVs have been used to help local police make arrests. Although military-operated UAVs are barred from use in law enforcement, CBP officials say they have authority to provide "interior law enforcement support". But the criticism makes clear the inevitable police use of UAVs will stir up heated debate.