Austin-area cops ready to partner with drones, but critics want rules


Highlights

The Williamson County sheriff’s office and San Marcos police plan to use drones for law enforcement purposes.

Police can now use drones because of an FAA rule change last year.

Drone use raises questions over privacy for some skeptics.

The Austin Fire Department has used drones since 2015.

Government use of aerial drones became much easier when the Federal Aviation Administration flipped the switch on new regulations last year. Since then, many Austin-area public safety agencies, including the Williamson County sheriff’s office and San Marcos police, are jumping in.

Some of those agencies say their drone use is narrowly defined, but the programs are too young to have policies in place that satisfy critics who worry that drones would threaten privacy.

“When you put a very powerful tool like this in the hands of government, the first thought is about privacy,” said Adam Schwartz, a senior lawyer at the Electronic Frontier Foundation. Schwartz said concerns about drones and surveillance are far reaching, and include fears that they could be used to monitor and photograph protesters.

Of the Central Texas law enforcement agencies contacted for this report, only Williamson County and San Marcos confirmed that they intend to use drones for law enforcement purposes. Round Rock police are considering drones, but a spokeswoman said that department is very early in the process and that drones were being researched for community outreach efforts.

Austin police aren’t pursuing a drone program in any official capacity. However, the Austin police union is researching the technology and is pushing for drones to be used by the department.

The Williamson County sheriff’s office plans to purchase three drones that could be used in SWAT situations, patrols and missing-person cases, spokeswoman Patricia Gutierrez said.

Williamson County Sheriff Robert Chody declined to comment for the story because his agency also is too early in the decision-making process. But a spokeswoman said no policy has been created outlining when or where authorities can use drones, and that budget negotiations will likely determine which and how many drones they purchase.

Meanwhile, the San Marcos Police Department’s lone drone, which it already has purchased, will be used for investigations into vehicle crashes involving serious injury or death.

“With any new technology, it makes sense for us to look at but also to deploy it intelligently,” San Marcos Assistant Police Chief Bob Klett said. “That is why we are delaying any other uses on it.”

The FAA expects drone use to explode in the coming years, according to a report in March predicting the number of drones flown in the United States to triple to 3.5 million by 2021. Their popularity continues to drive down costs — one of the more popular models for use by public safety agencies retails at about $1,000 — allowing many departments to purchase drones without requiring the public’s approval.

Schwartz said the public’s input should be gathered before drones are used. In the case of San Marcos, the City Council did weigh in on the purchase of the DJI Phantom 3 drone, giving its approval. Williamson County commissioners could provide some input during budget negotiations later this year. Round Rock hasn’t purchased any drones.

Schwartz said that public and political input is key to the use of government-operated drones. But even with public approval, he said people need to remain vigilant about policies. Without a clear policy, nothing is in place to stop a police department from using drones for court-approved surveillance.

Concerns similar to Schwartz’s had a role in ending an attempt by Austin police in 2012 to get their own drone.

“We didn’t feel like the council or community supported it, so it got dropped,” said Ken Casaday, president of the Austin police union. “Some were afraid that officers would abuse it in spying. It was silly, but people are concerned about that.”

The union’s research has an emphasis on search and rescue operations. Casaday said drones could be a “force multiplier” — a low-cost purchase that would increase the Austin Police Department’s capabilities. But Casaday said he would want their use limited to life-saving operations.

“It should be used for very specific circumstances,” he said. “I don’t want to use it for surveillance, even though I think we might get to that one day.”

Before the FAA created new regulations last summer, the Austin Fire Department had already been operating drones for more than a year under a rare exemption that made it one of the first public safety agencies in the country allowed to use drones.

The Fire Department had recognized their value in responding to wildfires in Bastrop.

“I noticed the devastation and the distance, and I thought, ‘how can one cover this much distance?’” said Assistant Chief Richard Davis, who helped spearhead the acquisition of drones for Fire Department’s Robotics Emergency Deployment Team.

Even with a skeptical public, the Fire Department got council approval for a program. They have since purchased three drones: a now largely decommissioned Leptron, a DJI Inspire and a DJI Mavic, which is used in a “dog and pony show” for recruits and to tape promotional materials, Davis said.

Today, the drones are used in wildfire situations, for search and rescue missions and during floods.

“In my mind, without question, they are very beneficial,” Davis said. “It gives us immediate feedback, better situational awareness. It is just a smart way of operating.”

At a recent drone demonstration, firefighters in a concrete training tower paused to watch the buzzing quadcopters hover above the parking lot of the Southeast Austin training center.

“It’s still viewed as a novelty,” Davis said. “Then people see it being used and it is an ‘ah-ha’ moment.”

But even a fire department’s use of a drone raised concerns for Schwartz.

“Once the fire department owns the drone, with the flip of a switch or a stroke of a pen that can be applied to the police,” he said. “Given the ease of the transference of all this equipment, it needs to be talked about.”

Texas Search and Rescue, a volunteer group that assists public safety agencies around the state, also has a burgeoning drone program, said Brandon Goering, a founding member and a planning section chief of the group.

“We have purchased our first drone,” Goering said. “That was the first step. Right now we are training with it, getting our ducks in a row to know what we can and can’t do.”

Texas Search and Rescue purchased a DJI Mavic, a nimble quadcopter that can fold up to about the size of a VHS tape. Austin firefighters already can essentially “holster” their DJI Mavic drone in a small pack, and one civilian fire official who operates the same model said he could see the drone easily being clipped to a belt loop.

Goering sees a lot of potential for the drone, especially with current camera technology. It already has a high-resolution 4k camera, but infrared cameras can be easily installed and some video software already the capability to spot certain colors. For example, Goering said, a drone seeking a person wearing a yellow shirt could use a camera that pinpoint spots where that color is detected, possibly leading to faster discovery.

In disasters, such as floods, a drone can give quickly provide a map of the terrain. Eventually, authorities might be able to fly a drone capable of delivering a life vest to someone stranded in floodwaters.

“I feel like we are just scratching the surface,” he said. “We have no lack of ideas. Each time we take it out, we come up with something new.”

Correction: This story has been updated to correct the name of Williamson County sheriff’s office spokeswoman Patricia Gutierrez.



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