If this was in a cop show, it might be called “The Case of the Missing Drone.”
In an epic back-and-forth with the Police Department of San Jose, Calif., Vice finally proved that, yes, the department had indeed bought a drone.
The department initially told Vice that it was unable to locate any documents about using federal grants to purchase a small, unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV), but eventually, it was able to track down the receipts and find the grant application that funded the purchase. (One would think that a Silicon Valley police department would have sufficient capability to electronically search for documents.)
“Law enforcement has natural uses for drone technology,” chief technologist Joe Hall of the Center for Democracy and Technology told VentureBeat. But, he added, “the inadequate response to the request for information is troubling, [since] the public needs to have a solid basis for trusting that law enforcement will use drones in a responsible manner.
“Shenigans like these do not inspire confidence.”
He also noted that, interestingly enough, Congresswoman Zoe Lofren (D-Calif.), whose district includes San Jose, has cosponsored a bill governing the use of drones by law enforcement agencies. The Congresswoman’s office has not responded to our request for comment.
The vehicle in question, a Century Neo 660 hexacopter drone, cost a bit less than $7,000 and arrived in January. Related purchases included a GoPro video camera and a video transmitter. But the new vehicle is apparently sitting in a police garage somewhere, since the department has not yet used it, trained anyone on it, or applied for Federal Aviation Administration permission to fly it.
In the partially redacted application to the Bay Area Urban Areas Security Initiative of the Department of Homeland Security, the San Jose police mention the need for a drone for its Bomb Squad. It noted that “the cost of these UAVs is 95 percent less than trying to purchase a new small bomb robot.”
The application additionally noted that “the UAV is truly regional in nature as it could be deployed at any venue in the Bay Area when needed” and added that the “UAV will greatly enhance our response capability.”
CDT’s Hall told us that “almost any function that a law enforcement entity performs with manned aircraft that can be performed by an unmanned vehicle like a drone will [eventually] be done in that manner,” because of cost and flexibility.
The San Jose department is not unique in having or wanting a small, unmanned flying machine. According to Ars Technica, police departments seeking FAA approval have included those in Houston; North Little Rock, Ark.; Miami-Dade, Fla.; and Seattle.
But, Hall added, “there are very few legal safeguards in place right now aimed at making sure surveillance is done responsibility with drone platforms.”
In addition to surveillance, there’s the question of safety. Matt Waite, the head of the University of Nebraska’s Drone Journalism Lab, has told VentureBeat that some models are, essentially, “flying lawnmowers,” and there have been instances of serious injury.
“Safety of these things is certainly an issue,” Electronic Frontier Foundation staff technologist Jeremy Gillula told us. “You’re not just tossing a soft Nerf ball up in the air.”