One hundred and twenty meters above the ground, an unmanned drone uses its heat-seeking camera to help a policeman track down a suspect. A pilot on the ground is using a laptop and joystick to fly the drone by remote control. He directs his colleague in the search.
The live video signal is coming from an aircraft called a Shadow Hawk, which Deputy Chief, Randy McDaniel of the Montgomery County Sheriff’s Office, says will be a powerful tool for all kinds of police work.
McDaniel comments on the uses of the technology, saying:
“As a law enforcement agency, not only do we have to deal with criminal activities, we also have to go hunt for the missing child, the Alzheimer’s patient that has wandered off and, again, we can take this drone and launch it and give us a greater capacity to be able to find those individuals.”
Equipped with powerful cameras, GPS and transmitting technology, the UAV can quietly hover 200 meters over a location, while sending its operators real-time video of the scene.
McDaniel says the more they know about a crime scene ahead of time, the safer his officers will be, further elaborating:
“The purpose of having the bird in the first place is to be able to protect my SWAT team. That is what it’s all about, we’re not about getting our SWAT team members hurt and if I have some technology that I can utilize to provide for greater safety for them – we’re going to use it.”
Dotty Griffith, of the American Civil Liberties Union of Texas, says, “This is boys with their toys gone wild.”
Griffith isn’t a fan of the drone. She says that apart from legitimate police work, it could also be used to spy on innocent citizens. Griffith has “concerns that technology is moving at a faster rate than our laws. And we think this technology gives police a lot of leeway for fishing expeditions, warrant-less surveillance, and that there are just no checks and balances on the system at this point.”
But McDaniel discounts the argument, saying the drone will only be used in mission-specific situations. He says in response to criticisms:
“Yes, we can read a license plate from 400 feet in the air. Does that help us? Absolutely. It helps us identify suspects and the vehicles that they are in because we may not have someone close enough to come in and apprehend the suspect.”
Police departments in both Miami and Houston have been working with the Federal Aviation Administration to get clearance for drone flights. Police forces in the U.K. have been using drone technology for surveillance operations since early last year. McDaniel says American cities will inevitably follow suit.