Texas cities and legislators have struggled with the benefits and potential harm of drones in terms of privacy and public safety.
The Austin American-Statesman reported Sunday that several police departments in the state currently test drones and two of them currently operate the aircraft. The Federal Aviation Administration only allows use of drones in urban areas when life in is imminent danger.
FAA records show that, aside from the Border Patrol drones that fly mostly over unpopulated areas of the Rio Grande, the largest users of drones in Texas are universities that use them for emergency response training, natural resource studies, aeronautical engineering and to monitor river and wetland habitats.
Reactions from the public to police drone testing programs have been varied. Sgt. Christopher Cook with the Arlington police department said there was not much pushback because they've "made it very clear the privacy of our citizens is of paramount importance."
Meanwhile, Austin chief of police Art Acevedo killed a drone testing program after learning about the insurance costs of a leased $120,000 aircraft. That, and concerns of how it would be perceived. "I knew it would invoke a lot of suspicion and paranoia," Acevedo said.
Most of the drones being tested or used by police in the state are different from the large Unmanned Aerial Vehicles used by the military or federal agencies that operate them from hundreds or thousands of miles away. The police drones are much smaller and in most cases are flown within sight of their operator.
With vast swaths of uninhabited ranchland and university aerospace programs that do research in drone technology, the state wants to make the case that it is a good candidate to become one of six chosen by the FAA as test ranges to understand how commercial drones can fly safely and be allowed in the national airspace. If successful, the effort backed by Gov. Rick Perry and Texas A&M at Corpus Christi could mean up to $800 million in economic activity and up to 15,000 jobs in research and manufacturing.
Currently, the FAA has issued less than 400 permits for drones, but the number is expected to rise to 30,000 over the next two decades.
U.S. Rep. Ted Poe, R-Texas, co-sponsors the Preserving America Privacy Act, which would mandate that governments obtain warrants before using a drone "to collect information that can identify individuals in a private area" and would prevent them from equipping the drones with weapons. It would also allow even tougher state laws to supersede federal policy.
A bill by state Rep. Lance Gooden of Terrell seeks to bar drones from recording images of private property without a search warrant. The plan has garnered the support of about 100 House members from both parties.
Arlington's Unmanned Aircraft
The federal government has given the Arlington Police Department the OK to fly unmanned aircraft for police operations in parts of the city.
The aircraft, different from drones used in the military, are 58-inch long battery-powered, remote-controlled helicopters that carry cameras instead of weapons and always within view of the officer operating it.
Arlington PD has several unmanned aircraft, but Sgt. Christopher Cook with the Arlington Police Department stressed that they are not drones.
“A lot of times people think of images overseas in Afghanistan or Iraq. Drones are very large aircraft, they can flown for long periods of time,” said Sgt. Cook.
The aircraft can be launched to help police search for a missing person, or used in the aftermath of a severe storm or to help investigate car accidents.
“If we thought a missing person was in a defined area, we could put the equipment up in the air with the video equipment and search those areas,” explained Sgt. Cook. “During last year’s tornados, we'd be able to do damage assessments in limited areas."
"When we have a [vehicle] fatality investigation, our investigators will go out and sometimes spend hours reconstructing the scene. Now, we may be able to launch the equipment in those areas and take [photo] measurements from the air and we can open the highways back up more quickly,” said Cook.
He added that the aircraft will not be used for such operations as police pursuits, spying or violating any civil liberties, as many fear.
The same laws that apply to manned aircraft apply to these.
“We are not going to use these in routine patrol,” said Sgt. Cook. “These are only going to be used after careful evaluation. The purpose of our program is to enhance the safety of our officers and the safety of the public."
One of the biggest advantages for the city is that unmanned aircraft will not just be a police tool, but they'll also serve as a resource to other city agencies.
“It's a small concern about the invasion of privacy issues where we're concerned. But at the same time we always want law enforcement to do more, if this does it, I’m OK with that, I guess,” said Michael Rhodes, an Arlington resident.
Arlington police have been conducting training operations with the unmanned aircraft.
The FAA recently granted Arlington PD approval to fly the small helicopters in the city, as long as they’re flown south of Interstate 30 to avoid Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport airspace.
NBC 5's Mola Lenghi contributed to this report.