Going up

Officer James Velasquez (center) controls a drone during an August training session while James Lawrence (right) and Officer Hector Iglecias look on.

We’ve all been there. You’re driving down the road and suddenly come to a complete stop. There’s a bad wreck up ahead and the ambulance is gone, but the police have blocked traffic to take measurements as part of an investigation.

Today, those waits are significantly shorter in Sahuarita.

The Sahuarita Police Department has two drones up and running and one of their primary functions is to map traffic accidents. The battery-operated drones, which cost $1,300 each and can fly up to 30 minutes, can map accidents in much less time, Lt. Matt McGlone said.

In addition, the department’s drones will be used:

To search for missing and lost people

To search for suspects during active criminal investigations

To assist emergency responders during an active critical incident, disaster or emergency

To assist other town departments in training, recruitment and marketing efforts

To assist other law enforcement or public safety agencies

They will not be used at this point in tactical situations, such as when someone is barricaded or officers serve high-risk search warrants, McGlone said.

Four SPD officers have an FAA license to fly the drones, which are also known as unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV). They've been used twice since Dec. 17 — to check on a suspicious person and on a suspicious vehicle, neither of which were found.

“In those situations the drone was a force multiplier and made us more effective and efficient,” McGlone said. “We could check the area better and faster with less resources used.”

When the public first learned the department was looking at drone technology, they received a lot of calls, McGlone said. Some wanted to know the circumstances in which drones would be used and others were “straight silly,” he said.

The department’s drones are not military combat-ready devices nor will they be used to spy on people, McGlone said.

If officers were using a drone to look for a suspect, for example, McGlone said residents needn’t worry about being seen through their window. The drone would be some distance in the air and officers on the ground would be directed to the suspect’s location.

The height of the drone during an operation would depend upon the area, he said. While officers have permission to fly up to 400 feet, they typically wouldn’t take it beyond 150 feet.

A suspect laying in a field might require a closer view, but the officers don’t want to risk losing a drone in a tree, McGlone said.

According to Sahuarita Police Department policy, the drones cannot be used:

To conduct surveillance activities not approved or outlined in the policy.

To target a person based solely on individual characteristics, such as, but not limited to race, ethnicity, national origin, religion, disability, gender or sexual orientation.

To harass, intimidate, threaten, annoy, tease or discriminate against any individual or group.

To conduct personal business or for any other personal use.

“I think now, with a little bit of education they see the drones as less of an invasion of privacy and more as a police tool,” McGlone said.

Because there were few law enforcement agencies with drone programs last spring and because the FAA’s regulations were confusing, McGlone said the department turned to Drone Control Systems, a Cochise County software development company for help.

DCS volunteered to help the department navigate the FAA’s regulations, trained several SPD officers to fly the devices and helped them prepare for an hourlong FAA test, McGlone said.

New rules

While some law enforcement agencies, such as the Cochise County Sheriff’s Department and San Diego Sheriff’s Department, went through a drawn-out process to obtain different Certificates of Authorization to operate their drones, DCS helped the SPD officers receive individual FAA licenses.

Law enforcement agencies no longer need to go through the Certificate of Authorization process. As of Aug. 29, the FAA has new rules for non-hobbyist drone flyers, such as law enforcement agencies. Under the new rules, pilots need only be at least 16 years old, pass an initial aeronautical knowledge test at an FAA-approved testing center, and be vetted by the Transportation Safety Administration.

McGlone said DCS agreed to help the police department because they hope to develop a branch within their company that will work exclusively with public safety officers on drone technology. For example, DCS is working on creating a transponder so lost drones can be found.

San Diego drones

San Diego Sheriff’s Department Lt. Jason Vickery said his department has four drones, four operators and four more in training. They’ve been operating the drones since October for tactical situations and search-and-rescue missions. Crime scene and accident mapping will come later, he said.

“We’ve done four or five high-risk warrant services; we provided aerial support along with our helicopters,” Vickery said.

In one instance, the department used the drone so officers could decide the best way to approach a suspect who had doused himself with gasoline following a high-speed chase, he said.

Commander Mark Genz, who retired from the Cochise County Sheriff’s Department last week, said his department was given a drone by the Howard G. Buffett Foundation. Two deputies have been trained, and they plan to use it for search-and-rescue missions and the very rare SWAT team missions.

Like McGlone, Genz thinks of the drone as “just another tool.”

The drones are definitely gaining traction as the FAA gets easier to deal with, Vickery said.

“I’ve been to a lot of law enforcement conferences and I really think most agencies will be using these in one way, shape or form in the next couple of years,” Vickery said. “The technology is not just making deputies and officers safer, but it’s making situations safer for everyone involved.”

The Sahuarita Police Department doesn’t currently have a drone budget, but if officials conclude they want to continue the program they will work up a budget by the end of June, McGlone said. An additional four or five officers would then become operators.

Kim Smith | 547-9740