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Tuesday, Jun. 20, 2006 at 6:22 AM
Police launched the future of law enforcement into the smoggy Los Angeles sky in the form of a drone aircraft, bringing technology most commonly associated with combat zones to urban policing.
The unmanned aerial vehicle, which looks like a child's remote control toy and weighs about five pounds (2.3 kilograms), is a prototype being tested by the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department.
Police say the drone, called the SkySeer, will be able to accomplish tasks too dangerous for officers and free up helicopters for other missions.
"This technology could be used to find missing children, search for lost hikers, or survey a fire zone," said Commander Sid Heal, head of the Technology Exploration Project of the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department. "The ideal outcome for us is when this technology becomes instrumental in saving lives."
The SkySeer would also be a helpful tool to nab burglary suspects on rooftops and to chase down suspects fleeing on foot. The drone comes equipped with low-light and infrared capabilities and can fly at speeds up to 30 miles (48 kilometers) per hour for 70 minutes.
The plane collapses and can fit into a shoulder pack smaller than a golf bag. Its portability and ease of assembly could be a big advantage for law enforcement.
"It's basically a high-tech kite that field officers could set up in a matter of minutes," said Heal.
A small camera capable of tilt and pan operations is fixed to the underside of the drone which sends the video directly to a laptop command station. Once launched, the craft is set to fly autonomously with global positioning system (GPS) coordinates and a fixed flight pattern.
As technology improves, the drone will be outfitted with zoom capabilities. For now, the craft simply flies lower to hone in on its target.
Sometimes birds take notice of the slow-flying SkySeer. "In fact, we talked about making it look like a bird to make it more environmentally benign," said Heal.
The stealth quality of the SkySeer is a big advantage, according to police.
"The plane is virtually silent and invisible," said Heal. "It will give us a vertical perspective that we have never had."
The Los Angeles Sheriff's Department operates a fleet of 18 helicopters, priced between three and five million dollars each. The SkySeer will cost between 25,000 and 30,000 dollars.
"We never have enough helicopters," said Heal. The police helicopters are in near-constant use, and the SkySeer would alleviate some of this pressure.
Unmanned surveillance crafts may become the norm in urban policing, says Heal.
"Who knew five years ago we would be shooting photos and video with our phones?" he said. "I could see this drone technology replacing some demand for conventional aircrafts 10 years into the future."
Sam De La Torre, designer of the drone at Octatron Industries, has been working on the project for two years and has seen demand from other police forces. "The Los Angeles Police Department has signed on as well," he said. "It's the wave of the future."
Though the SkySeer is not capable of spying into windows just yet, for some a future of nearly invisible eyes in the sky is an unsettling introduction of science fiction into daily life.
"A helicopter can be seen and heard, and one can make behavior choices based on that," said Beth Givens of the Privacy Rights Clearinghouse. "Do we really want to live in a society where our backyard barbeques will be open to police scrutiny?"
But police say that such privacy concerns are unwarranted because surveillance is already ubiquitous. "You shouldn't be worried about being spied on by your government," said Heal. "These days you can't go anywhere without a camera watching you whether you're in a grocery store or walking down the street."
For now, the sheriffs will continue trial runs of the SkySeer to get a handle on its capabilities. "Everything works in the lab," said Heal. "But you don't really know until you get it in the field."
During Friday's field test, the future of law enforcement looked like the fall of Icarus from Greek mythology. As De la Torre banked the Skyseer left at an elevation of about 300 feet (91 meter), the high-tech kite took a sudden nosedive and crashed in a vacant lot a few hundred yards (meters) from reporters.
"There must have been some sort of communication interference," said De La Torre as he inspected the multicolored wires and circuitry spilling out of his damaged drone.
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