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Perhaps no police technology is more controversial today than flying robotic drones equipped with cameras that officers can use to get a bird’s-eye view of a crime scene in an emergency. Critics say the use of drones raises major privacy concerns.
But drones offer some promise for law enforcement, according to Sgt. Andrew Cohen of the Miami-Dade Police Department in Florida. The department is testing a T-Hawk Micro Air Vehicle (MAV), an aerial camera drone from Honeywell International, but it hasn’t used the aircraft in a real-world emergency situation yet.
What the MAV brings to police work is the ability to get a close look dangerous situations as they unfold. About 24 inches in diameter and 24 inches tall, the 19-lb. MAV is a flyable video camera that bears more of a resemblance to a helicopter than it does to, say, a jet.
It can hover and fly in any direction and is operated by a pilot using a laptop computer and a small control unit that directs its movements in the air.
Usually flown between 25 and 300 feet above the ground, the MAV runs on gasoline and has a built-in horizontal fan that moves it around like a hovercraft. “It’s gyro-stabilized, so it almost flies itself,” Cohen said. “You just tell it where to go.”
A MAV system retails for $250,000, according to Honeywell. Because of its specialized nature, only licensed pilots in the department’s aviation unit are permitted to operate it, Cohen said.
The department began testing the MAV while looking at ways to provide aerial support for its special tactical team. “We would use it for reacting to a barricaded suspect or a hostage situation,” he said. “We don’t want to bring our officers in during such a risk. We can bring this in to provide real-time information to commanders on the ground and give them video so they can make a decision.
The MAV does have some limitations, he said. Because of its small size and light weight, it can’t be used in strong winds. It can only be operated during daylight hours, according to FAA rules, and it must be flown within an FAA-approved restricted operating zone that ensures it’s kept at a safe distance from full-size aircraft. The MAV is also labor-intensive, requiring at least four pilots to operate it – one at the controls and three others to maintain visual contact, monitor for safety and handle communications.
Not everyone is a fan of these flying cameras, according to a recent story in The Wall Street Journal. Critics including the American Civil Liberties Union argue that the devices could allow police to improperly spy on citizens and conduct illegal surveillance operations while shredding personal privacy.