Police, fire departments find uses for drones
When State Police bloodhound Texas was lost last month during the search for a missing man near the Wooster Mountain State Park, numerous resources were immediately called in to help find the dog, including a helicopter.
But it took several hours for the air support, which can cost as much as $6,000 an hour to operate, to deploy. A drone, on the other hand, could have been available in as little as 15 minutes — and at a lower cost.
That was not an option for Danbury at the time, but it is now.
The Danbury Fire Department received its first drone last week. The device, which cost more than $20,000 and is equipped with a thermal heat-sensing camera, was given to the department by an anonymous donor.
Jamie Gagliardo, the drone program administrator for the department, said his interest in drones, which can carry several cameras at the same time, began several years ago after he was introduced to the machines by Deputy Chief Bernie Meehan.
“We soon realized the value that this technology could provide in the field,” Gagliardo said. “With the drone we can hover over a fire scene providing us with a lot of information, from the location of the firefighters to hotspots inside the fire with the use of the thermal camera. You can set the drone so it will circle over a given point and maintain its camera position on the point of interest.”
Additional features can also be added, including a zoom camera that can read a license plate from nearly two miles away and a hazardous materials monitor, Gagliardo said.
“With the monitor on the drone, we could send it into a hazmat situation and determine the level of the contaminant before we ever send a firefighter into the scene,” he said. “That can be extremely valuable.”
Unlike Danbury, other towns in the state, including Westport, have drones operated by the police department, not the fire department.
But even as the devices become an increasingly important tool for emergency officials, the drone industry and the rules that govern it are moving slowly.
The state Legislature considered a bill last year backed by Berlin police that would have allowed cops to fly drones equipped with lethal weapons. The proposal snagged national headlines — no other state allows lethal drones — and died in committee.
“This was originally a good bill to protect communities from unwarranted police drone surveillance and prevent police from weaponizing drones,” said David McGuire, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Connecticut, in a May 1 statement. “The ACLU (supports) protecting people from unwarranted drone surveillance, but opposes the amendment to allow police to equip drones with lethal and ‘less-lethal’ weapons.”
In the year or so that Westport police have used a drone, it’s mainly flown at scenes of fatal or serious accidents, said Westport police officer Capt. Ryan Paulsson, a certified drone pilot.
Some Connecticut companies are positioning for a drone boom.
“We envision a future where every squad car in America has a drone integrated into its computer system,” said Paul Ouellette, a spokesman for a West Haven-based distributor Drone USA. “At present, the drone industry is in infancy. (Police) departments are just learning how drones can make their work simpler and safer.”
This summer, the company flew “quadcopter” and airplane-type drones in demonstrations to police departments in Trumbull and on Jennings Beach in Fairfield.
Drone USA hopes to get a foothold in the Connecticut and New Jersey markets by selling and servicing drones like the DJI Phantom 4 that Paulsson flies. Stamford police use a slightly older model. They retail for between $800 and $1,400.
“The departments we encounter seem to be at different stages of interest,” Ouellette said. “For example, some departments are experimenting with DJI products; others tend to favor more sophisticated U.S. manufactured products.”
Like any novel technology, the drone industry faces a novel set of problems.
In August, the U.S. military stopped using DJI drones, which are made in China, due to concern their data might not be secure. Documents posted online alleged data was shared with the Chinese government, and immigration officials started an investigation.
DJI Ltd. said in a statement that it doesn’t look at flight logs, photos or video “unless customers actively upload and share them with us,” the Associated Press reported in December.
Flying and the Fourth Amendment
Privacy and other civil rights concerns persist.
Federal Aviation Administration rules treat emergency officials just like any other commercial drone operator, and prohibit flights before dawn.
But without additional legislation, there’s no definite rule prohibiting police from flying their drone cameras over people’s houses, according to a 2014 study by the Connecticut General Assembly’s Legislative Program Review and Investigations Committee.
U.S. courts have never defined exactly how far above the ground private property ends and the so-called “public highway” of the navigable skies begins. The Supreme Court has yet to take up a drone case.
“There is a place for drones in the police department, but they have to be used in accordance with the Fourth Amendment,” which protects against unreasonable search and seizure, McGuire said.
In Danbury, Gagliardo has been busy learning more about the technology and earning the certification from the Federal Aviation Administration required to pilot the device.
The city is also in the process, in conjunction with Danbury Municipal Airport, of gaining a certificate of authorization that will allow the fire department to fly the drone in Danbury.
Authorization from the FAA is required to fly any drones in the city because the entire municipality — and parts of Ridgefield — are within the airport’s five mile approach zone.
“All drone activity, even if it’s just recreational, must be approved by the control tower,” said Mike Safranek, the assistant administrator of the airport.
“There is a misconception that hobbyists can fly wherever they want, but that’s simply not true.”
The regulations are in place, he said, to protect planes from drone activity, particularly during critical landing maneuvers.
“We’ve experienced a growing problem with people operating drones near the airport and it’s getting to the point where we will start calling the police,” Safranek said. “It’s a criminal offense to fly a drone in the airport’s airspace.”
The drone will be made available through mutual aid to other departments in the area, and requests already started coming before the device was even delivered to the city. If other departments call for the drone, Gagliardo will also be on call as its pilot.
“We believe this will be a very popular resource,” Gagliardo said. “As far as I know, we are the only department in the area to have the technology.”