State Police ‘toy’ draws attention as committee prepares to debate drone bill

Posted March 04, 2013, at 6:08 p.m.

AUGUSTA, Maine — Maine State Police, which recently purchased a small “toy” drone, is paying close attention to a state bill that would regulate how police are allowed to use unmanned aerial vehicles.

Earlier this year, a sergeant with the state police’s tactical team unit purchased a $300 Parrot AR.Drone and an extra $40 battery for training purposes. The device is marketed as a toy, and is available in electronics stores across the country.

According to a memo provided by state police in response to a Freedom of Access Act request from Muck Rock, an open-government news organization, the Parrot is “a ‘toy,’ which probably wasn’t made to be used for tactical missions.”

The memo, much of which is redacted, states that the drone has several benefits, including “safety of team members,” the device’s small price tag, its “crystal clear” digital camera that could allow it to serve as a “great reconnaissance tool.”

Lt. Col. Raymond Bessette, deputy chief of the state police, said Monday that police have yet to deploy the unit, meaning they have not put it into the field for tactical use.

“Certainly, if we chose to go that route, this isn’t the one we’d purchase,” Bessette said, adding that the drone can lose contact when it rounds a corner or goes too far from its operator.

Bessette said state police officials weren’t aware of the sergeant’s purchase until after state police received the FOAA request.

The drone has several downsides, according to the memo. It has a 15-minute battery life, and batteries take an hour to recharge. Heavy winds can render it unusable. Also, the drone can only fly about 165 feet away from the user handling it, according to the Parrot website.

“It’s an off-the-shelf unit. You could walk into most stores and buy them,” Bessette said, adding he saw one when he walked into a Verizon store last week after a hearing in Augusta regarding the drone regulation bill.

The bill, sponsored by Sen. John Patrick, D-Rumford, received strong support from the Maine chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union. It sets several parameters for the use of unmanned aerial vehicles, including the requirement that a judge issue a search warrant that shows police have probable cause before using a drone to gather evidence.

During a Feb. 26 Legislative hearing on the bill, lawmakers on both sides of the aisle expressed support for it, citing concerns that unregulated use might lead to violations of privacy.

“The conversation is in its infancy,” Bessette said, adding that he is not aware of any other departments in the state experimenting with drones.

Federal Aviation Administration rules may require Maine State Police to keep its drone on the ground until it receives appropriate certification.

Before any public agency — including first responders — puts a drone in the air, they are required to obtain authorization from the FAA.

Any citizen can fly a drone at altitudes below 400 feet and away from populated areas and airports, as long as it is for recreational and not commercial purposes, an FAA spokesman said Monday. However, for a public agency to do the same thing, it requires a certificate of authorization from the FAA.

The FAA changed its rules in 2012 to speed up the certification process for public entities, which typically takes fewer than 58 days, according to the FAA.

Bessette said Monday that state police weren’t aware of this rule until the Feb. 26 legislative hearing, and that it was their understanding that use of drones under 400 feet wasn’t restricted for anyone. An FAA spokesman said Monday that wasn’t the case.

“We’ll look into that,” Bessette said.

The FAA cannot regulate the operation of drones indoors, such as in a store or a building used for police training, according to the spokesman.

Bessette said he hasn’t had a chance to sit down with the tactical team sergeant to discuss the capabilities of the drone or how he has used it thus far in training, and that plans and policies surrounding potential drone use were still “premature.”

Potential uses could range from launching the drone to search for missing hunters or children, or in conjunction with a police operation, which might require a warrant, Bessette said.

Regardless of the fate of the bill, “we’re still bound by the Constitution, and we’re still bound by the 4th Amendment,” the lieutenant colonel said.

“We would never want do anything to breach the trust of the public we serve,” Bessette said.

Bangor interim police Chief Peter Arno said Monday that the department does not have any plans to purchase a drone, but that it has experimented with one that is owned by a member of the Special Response Team in the past for training scenarios to see if it might be useful to the team in the future.

“We have not ever used a drone for any real-life scenario or incident in the city,” Arno said.

The interim chief said such a tool could prove useful in a “high-risk type of critical incident,” such as a hostage incident or when a suspect is barricaded. A drone could allow police to gauge a situation without putting an officer’s safety at risk, he said.

Maine Deputy Attorney General William Stokes has urged the Legislature to take its time with this bill and place a one-year moratorium on the use of drones by police to give the Legislature time to carefully review and research the capabilities of drones and examine what other states are doing.

The Legislature’s Judiciary Committee meets Thursday for a work session on the bill.

“I’m glad we’re having this conversation now,” Bessette said. “I’m sure all law enforcement agencies would like to know what the rules of the road will be.”

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