Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Drone to phone

An article in the Lincoln Journal Star last week caught my eye, in which it is reported that a Nebraska state senator is proposing legislation to outlaw the use of drones by law enforcement agencies, ostensibly to protect citizens from the eye-in-the-sky.  I am unaware of an police agency in Nebraska using drones, but I have increasingly noticed marketing of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV) aimed at both police and fire departments.

When you think about it, a UAV offers some pretty significant advantages over a helicopter or fixed wing aircraft--which are commonplace in policing.  They are drastically cheaper to acquire and operate, require no pilot, and can be put in service swiftly from just about anywhere--no airport required.

Back in the 1970s LPD operated a helicopter, and during my term as Lancaster County Sheriff in the early 1990s, the Sheriff's Office operated a fixed-wing airplane.  These aircraft are very expensive to operate.  Only the largest agencies can afford to fly on a regular basis.  A UAV, on the other hand, can be deployed quickly when needed, and carries none of the big costs associated with an air wing.

I think this is probably why this senator (and many other people) are apprehensive about police use of drones: it's just far more "doable" than putting a helicopter in the air, and drones are much less conspicuous.  If you were sunning yourself on the deck behind your privacy fence, you'd probably notice a police helicopter in your neighborhood. A police drone, even though not necessarily intended for stealth, would be much smaller and quieter. I share these concerns to a point, but it seems to me that drones may have their place as a tool in emergency services, in certain circumstances and when protections are in place to minimize unnecessary intrusions on privacy.

In some respects, the proliferation of fixed cameras fills some of the needs that used to be the province of the police helicopter.  We used to put the Bell in the air for such events as the State Fair and Nebraska home football games in order to provide on-the-ground supervisors with information about traffic.  Today, some of the Citys' traffic cameras provide an even better view of those traffic patterns.  The full-resolution streaming video from these cameras is really nice, and a far cry from these public 15-second screenshots.

Lincoln came close to having a police drone last year: mine.  I really wanted to buy a Parrott AR drone after I saw some kid flying one in a Brookstone store, using an iPhone app as the controller.  I thought I could have some great fun with the grandkids, and annoy my wife until she gave me that look.  I even tried to convince myself that it had practical uses around the house, like checking the condition of the shingles, or inspecting the second-floor dryer vent.  How dumb is that? (Don't answer that, it was a rhetorical question.) Alas, I just wasn't willing to part with $299.99 in order to stream video from a drone to a phone.

As the legislature considers the bill, I intend to avoid  the legislative committee hearing, where testimony sometimes drones on and on.  By the way, there's a support group for people afflicted with that:  On and On Anon.


Anonymous said...

This bill is in response to the EPA monitoring of cattle/swine lagoons for clean water violations. The FARM lobby in this state pulls a lot of weight.

ARRRRG!!!! said...

@6:16 AM: Beware the FARM Lobby!

Eric said...

Have always loved the Bell!

Doesn't Omaha have a helicopter?

Anonymous said...


If it has to do with the EPA, then why does would the proposed law only apply to local and state agencies, not federal agencies? Looks like you're wrong about the intent of the proposed law.

Anonymous said...


Are you sure that is a pirate cow? Or are you just spreading some more bull?