Drones are a rapidly developing issue — on both sides of the law
Wednesday, October 21, 2015
We've heard plenty about drones recently, but even with all that information, we still can't figure out the answer to this question: Whose side are they on?
There's little doubt drones are capable of providing beneficial services and performing tasks that cannot be accomplished by people or other devices. They also hold the potential to bring headaches to law enforcement agencies around the world — a situation that has already begun.
Law enforcement regarding drones is unclear, which is not surprising given that the Federal Aviation Administration still hasn't nailed down all of its regulations. Laws and restrictions on drones are trickling onto the books in various states and municipalities.
That requires law enforcement agencies to be on their toes about how to deal with the small flying aircraft, sometimes referred to as UAS (unmanned aircraft systems). At least one commentator contends that states should be at the forefront of drone regulation and enforcement.
The city of Los Angeles recently adopted an ordinance making drone violations misdemeanors that could result in up to six months in jail and up to $1,000 in fines. That gives the city added leverage in enforcing existing FAA regulations, a member of Los Angeles' city council said. Other cities across the country have adopted similar measures.
The FAA showed it takes UAS violations seriously, leveling a $1.9 million fine against a photography company that repeatedly used a drone without authorization. Anticipating a surge of drone purchases around the holidays, the FAA also just announced that recreational UAS operators must register their drones. The federal agency plans to seat a task force to come up with guidelines by late November.
Drones have caused concern among officials and firefighters battling western wildfires recently, enough that one lawmaker has introduced a bill to protect airspace around sites of natural disasters. And that's not all that's happening in Congress in regard to the UAS.
Sen. Chuck Shumer (D-N.Y.) recently introduced legislation requiring drone producers to install hardware that would prevent the aircraft from flying in certain airspaces — for instance, prison yards, stadiums or law enforcement offices. The geofencing, as it's referred to, will cause drones to hover or land when they reach restricted space.
So law enforcement has a framework within which to operate, based on existing ordinances and federal regulations. But drones seem to be pushing the limits, and the industry's growth is outpacing the ability to keep up with advances.
That doesn't mean that authorities are ready to give up. Government entities already reportedly have conducted a test to track a commercially available drone in New York. And other weapons already have been developed to fight against drones, from the DroneShield — a device that warns of an approaching UAS, allowing individuals on the ground to attempt to capture with netting — to the Battelle DroneDefender, a device that stops drones with radio pulses.
On the other hand, drones can prove to be valuable resources, especially for law enforcement and first responders. Wisconsin's West Salem Police Department is one of several agencies in that state to use drones in its work. Using drones, officials recently mapped a crime scene that covered a two-block area. In Johnson County, Texas, firefighters have tested UAS to gain information from above on wildfires.
And while states like Maine have adopted legislation dictating how the devices can be used by law enforcement, drones can prove helpful in a number of ways, according to Dr. Sean Varah, founder of a company that makes computer vision and video enhancement software.
Varah lists five ways that drones hypothetically can aid police work:
- active shooter situations
- crime and traffic scene investigation
- crowd monitoring
- bomb inspection
Drones already have their place in the United States. Now, laws to regulate them and tools to combat illegal uses are on the way.
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