Thursday, April 17, 2014

N.D. embraces drone use as test site; partnership with university has helped law enforcement

While some states are debating laws to limit drone use, North Dakota has embraced the technology. The state "lobbied to be a drone test site for the federal government, and was one of six sites (Alaska, Nevada, New York, Texas and Virginia) chosen in December by the Federal Aviation Administration to research how to integrate them into the national airspace," Sandy Johnson reports for Stateline. (Associated Press photo: A drone used at the University of North Dakota)

"So far this year, 35 states have considered bills and resolutions regarding unmanned aerial vehicles," Johnson reports. "Most of them are privacy protection measures that would restrict the use of drones and set limits on the collection and storage of data."

The University of North Dakota has expanded its program to airline-pilot training program to train students to operate drones. "It was the first university to offer a degree in this field," Johnson notes. "50 students have graduated and another 100 are enrolled in the program. In a partnership with the university, the Grand Forks sheriff and police departments are already using drones in the northeastern quarter of the state."

Drone flights are overseen by Alan Frazier, a UND associate professor in charge of the Law Enforcement Unmanned Aircraft Systems Research Project, and a Grand Forks deputy sheriff, Johnson writes. "Frazier reports to a university compliance panel that specified five situations in which drones may be used: to search for lost people; perform post-disaster assessments; photograph crime and accident scenes; search for crime suspects who pose a risk to public safety; and assist with traffic control at major events."

"When a request comes in, Frazier gets FAA authorization for the flight," Johnson writes. "Then Frazier or another trained operator launches one of four small drones to aid law enforcement." He also trains pilots, "tests the drones during actual incidents and later assesses the effectiveness for the FAA and the two manufacturers."

Drones are cheap. "The Association of Unmanned Vehicle Systems International, a trade group for the drone industry, says the cost of a small UAV is less than $50,000, or about the price of a patrol car. It estimates operating costs at $25 to $75 an hour, compared to $200 to $400 per hour for a police helicopter."

Since May 2013 drones in North Dakota have "helped search a flooded river for drowning victims, photographed a train collision, photographed river bank erosion and damage to historic buildings, helped search for two suspects accused of auto theft and child molestation and took photos of an outdoor murder scene," Johnson writes. Approval was granted last month to fly drones at night. Frazier told Johnson, “A lot of significant crime activity occurs at night. Now this allows us to respond to incidents, whether it be a search or disaster assessment or a crime scene at night.” (Read more) (University of North Dakota video)

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