ARLINGTON – A remote control aircraft that was on display during Super Bowl week as a tool to watch for terrorist activity could become a permanent crime-fighting tool for Arlington police – providing them a bird’s eye view of hostage situations, car wrecks and other emergencies.
It’s not much bigger than a remote control toy helicopter – a smaller version of the same technology the military uses with drone aircraft in dangerous places such as the Afghanistan-Pakistan border. But for civilian applications, just don’t call it a drone, Arlington police spokeswoman Tiara Ellis Richard said. “It’s an unmanned aircraft,” she said. “It’s not a drone. That has a negative connotation.”
Arlington is one of the largest cities to get permission from the Federal Aviation Administration to fly the aircraft. However, as it stands now the aircraft can't be used for routine police matters in populated areas. The city's certificate of authorization allows only limited flying for training purposes in unpopulated areas, away from houses, roads and waterways, FAA spokesman Lynn Lunsford said.
"It’s for training and evaluation, and they’re not allowed to fly over any places where people might be," he said.
The aircraft, which can travel hundreds of feet high, was paid for with a Homeland Security grant during late January and early February. Today, the aerial vehicle is technically still owned by the its unidentified manufacturer, Richard said, but the device has been kept in storage until the city decides whether to deploy it long-term. The council likely will discuss the issue in the coming weeks, and identify ways to pay for an unmanned aircraft. The precise cost also hasn’t been disclosed, but in other cities agencies similar devices can be bought for just a few thousand dollars, and operated by existing police staff after a bit of training. In all, it likely would be just a fraction of the cost of deploying a real-life helicopter for police work.
If Arlington moves forward with the unmanned aircraft, it won’t be used for surveillance or spying on residents, Richard said. Instead, assuming FAA rules allow, it will be used for “mission-specific reasons” such as providing an aerial view of major crime scenes, fatal accidents or perhaps hostage situations or search-and-rescues.
The unmanned aircraft is an issue in the District 3 City Council race.
Incumbent Robert Rivera supports the police use of unmanned aerial technology. “This is a way we can utilize technology without putting officers in harm’s way,” Rivera said in an interview.
But one challenger, Zach Maxwell, said unmanned aircraft potentially could invade residents’ privacy, and would add to the city’s already-stretched budget. “Do not allow City Hall to use the same tactics used to watch terrorists in the Middle East on Arlington residents!” Maxwell wrote in an email to supporters.
Another challenger, Marvin Sutton, said he “would support it, but only for a specific use, like a hostage situation, where it would save lives.”
-- Gordon Dickson, email@example.com