Last Friday, near a cornfield in North Dakota, four underage men were pulled over under suspicion of drunk driving. The four men hopped out of their car and bolted into the cornfield. Grand Forks police didn’t follow them: Instead, they put a drone in the sky.
“One of them was walking through the cornfield. It took about three minutes to find him,” Alan Frazier, Deputy Sheriff in charge of the Grand Forks Police Department’s unmanned aerial vehicle system unit told me. “The other was found on a second flight, after maybe 25 minutes.”
The two other suspects were apprehended at another time—they had the unlucky distinction of becoming the first Americans ever tracked down and arrested with the help of a police quadcopter.
That it happened around Grand Forks is not a surprise.
Two years ago, a cattle rancher near there was arrested with the help of a Department of Homeland Security Predator drone, becoming the first man arrested in the US with the help of a drone. These four men become the first to be arrested in the US with the help of a local police drone (as of 2013, there were roughly 24 police agencies using drones).
Two weeks ago, in something of a coincidence, I sat in a conference room in Grand Forks as Frazier pitched me and several other journalists on the force’s use of drones.
To start off the presentation, he pulled up this video, made by AeroVironment, the company that makes the Qube, the drone that Frazier and his team and several other police departments around the country use:
Frazier called the video, in which a fugitive is tracked down with a drone, “a little Hollywood,” but that’s essentially what happened there, last week. The Grand Forks Police Department is the first in the United States to get Federal Aviation Administration approval to fly at night, and last weekend’s mission was the very first time the department had ever used the Qube at night on a mission.
“There’s a misnomer that these are covert spy tools,” Frazier told me when I was in Grand Forks. “We utilize them for events that are already occurring. We look for felony suspects, we do further analysis, we use them for totally overt missions. There’s no plans to use them covertly.”
“That’s not to say they can’t be used for covert missions, but they haven’t been,” he added. A video he showed us pitched the Qube as a “powerful surveillance tool.”
Tim Schuh, the police officer most often tasked with actually flying the thing, says it’s been used about a dozen times in the last year—only once while actually looking for a suspect (before this last case). “We’re not flying over downtown looking for trouble,” he said.
Still, the department seems a bit gung-ho about drones in a way that many others are not. Frazier balked at the idea that the department should or would get a warrant before flying one.
Alan is serial entrepreneur, active angel investor, and a drone enthusiast. He co-founded DRONELIFE.com to address the emerging commercial market for drones and drone technology. Prior to DRONELIFE.com, Alan co-founded Where.com, ThinkingScreen Media, and Nurse.com. Recently, Alan has co-founded Crowditz.com, a leader in Equity Crowdfunding Data, Analytics, and Insights. Alan can be reached at alan(at)dronelife.com