Arlington police hopeful their drones will soon be taking flight

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by MONIKA DIAZ

WFAA

Posted on February 8, 2013 at 12:12 AM

Updated Saturday, Feb 9 at 9:21 AM

ARLINGTON -- Aerial drones can search for missing people and give officers an eye inside a hostage situation before the SWAT team moves in.

The City of Arlington has two of them, but they've never flown a single mission. News 8 has learned the police department’s unmanned aircraft program might finally get to fly in the coming weeks.

City Councilman Robert Rivera supports the technology.

“It will help with significant applications across the community, from potential hostage situations to anything that will keep an officer out of harm's way,” Rivera said.

The city bought two small, remote-controlled, battery-operated helicopters, equipped with cameras in November 2011 from Leptron Industrial Robotic Technologies. They cost $202,259. Grant money from Homeland Security paid for the tiny choppers.

The Arlington Police Department planned to launch its program in January last year, but so far, no missions. The drones are still grounded.

“The money involved is significant, because this is taxpayer dollars, and anytime you have taxpayer dollars not utilized to the full degree… that is something all of us should keep an eye on,” Rivera said.

The FAA regulates unmanned aerial systems, commonly known as drones. Arlington does have the agency's permission to test the aircraft away from crowds, buildings, and highways. Practice sessions with the aircraft have been restricted to Lake Arlington, behind the police department’s training academy.

“The process can be frustrating, but ultimately we understand that the process takes time,” Rivera said.

The FAA turned down our request to go on camera, but they sent us a statement regarding unmanned aerial systems, saying safety it its top concern.

"The FAA regulates operation of Unmanned Aerial Systems to ensure that they pose no hazard to manned aircraft or people and property on the ground,"  said FAA spokesperson Lynn Lunsford.

Aviation expert Denny Kelly said the FAA faces a tough task. Kelly flew commercial airplanes for decades and also worked in law enforcement.

“The potential for problems is big,” Kelly said. “I don't want my airplane and my passengers and my crew compromised because of one of these things is in the area, and I got somebody that's controlling it that might not know where it is or which way it's going.”

Also delaying the program’s final approval is Arlington's location.

A big chunk of the city lies in one of the busiest air corridors in the country. D/FW International Airport, as well as Arlington and Grand Prairie Municipal Airports are all nearby.

The police department denied our request for an interview, but said it remains optimistic.

"We do believe there will be a positive announcement regarding our program within the next six weeks," Arlington PD said in a statement. "We continue to work closely with the FAA on this program and our eager to highlight those efforts in the near future."

Councilmember Rivera echoed the same.

“We know that there is a light at the end of the tunnel,” he said. 

APD said it won’t use the aircraft for routine patrol. They plan to use it for search and rescue missions, SWAT operations, and major accidents.

The program, like others across the nation, has its critics, with privacy being the main concern.

Texas State Representative Lance Gooden (R) introduced a bill that would make it illegal to use a drone to do surveillance on private property without a search warrant.

E-mail mdiaz@wfaa.com


FULL FAA STATEMENT REGARDING UNMANNED AERIAL SYSTEMS

"The FAA regulates operation of Unmanned Aerial Systems to ensure that they pose no hazard to manned aircraft or people and property on the ground. The FAA conducts a comprehensive review of each application, taking into account the geographical location and unique aspects of the airspace in which the unmanned aircraft will operate. This process involves extensive collaboration with applicants, including the development of procedures and training to allow for repeated safe use of the aircraft." -FAA Spokesman, Lynn Lunsford.

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