The Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department has joined the ranks of major metropolitan agencies adopting drone technology for search-and-rescue and hazardous operations.
Sheriff Jim McDonnell told reporters last week that the agency received FAA approval to deploy drones for “search and rescue, explosive ordnance detection, hazardous materials incidents, disaster response, arson fires, hostage rescue, and [finding] barricaded, armed suspects.”
“It will provide a clearer view, and different angles that you would not get using a robot,” Capt. Jack Ewell said during the press conference, adding that “the sheriff department policy is this device shall not be used for any type of random surveillance.”
Ewell hopes to deploy the quadcopters at bomb-squad calls – the LACSD receives about 600 such calls annually – as well as to haz-mat situations.
“The ability to rapidly gather otherwise inaccessible, yet vital, information during tactical operations is exponentially increased and can, thus, assist deputies to better determine the safest, most prudent and humane approaches to uncertain, isolated or hostile situations,” Ewell said.
The department also hopes to improve firefighting tactics by flying drones over a burn area. “Arson/Explosives Detail investigators respond to an average of 500 calls per year and the UAS will certainly prove itself indispensable in these types of incidents,” Deputy Lillian Peck stated in a press release.
She added that the drone squad will allow rescuers to respond to the more than 500 SAR operations each year in the case of “deployment between large trees and into precarious canyon areas too small or dangerous for aircraft.”
However, privacy advocates are skeptical of the sheriff’s promise concerning random surveillance.
“We’ve heard a million times that a tool is acquired to do one thing, and then it’s used to do the next thing,” said Adam Schwartz, senior staff attorney with the Electronic Frontier Foundation, in a recent LA Times interview. “We are very concerned that whatever the rules are now, with the stroke of a pen, they get deployed to some new and more disturbing purpose.”