Arlington PD Testing Unmanned Aircraft

Department hopes to use drones in emergency situations by January

The Arlington Police Department is in the first part of its experiment in using unmanned aircraft to assist in law enforcement.

The department has been testing and evaluating two battery-operated, remote-controlled aircraft over a small, restricted airspace near Lake Arlington Dam, away from populated areas.

The aircraft are flown only for daylight operations and within a small, restricted airspace. The aircraft have to remain within the pilot's line of sight and fly 400 feet above the ground level.

Pilots obtain the same license as a commercial aircraft pilot.

Arlington hopes to demonstrate the aircraft's potential law enforcement uses. All flight data is recorded and sent to the Federal Aviation Administration for evaluation.

"All of the U.S. and the FAA is depending on our testing and experiment, our experimentation to create a model for law enforcement usage of these vehicles," Police Chief Theron Bowman said.

Arlington was the first agency in a densely populated urban area approved by the FAA to fly unmanned aircraft.

The drones look like nothing more than model helicopters. But at 11 pounds and 20 inches long, the unmanned aircraft would be a powerful asset to the city, Bowman said.

In a City Council briefing Tuesday, Bowman said the aircraft are capable of carrying cameras that shoot high-quality still pictures and video and have night-vision capability. The aircraft also have heat-sensing technology the fire department can use.

"Obviously, Texas is prone to a lot of dry weather and large fires," said Deputy Chief Lauretta Hill, who oversees homeland security and special events for the department. "Being able to send a vehicle up and sense the origin of the fire will give them the the tools in order to determine where they'll deploy their resources."

Bowman said police hope to move into Phase 1A by September, which, with FAA approval, would expand the airspace in which the unmanned aircraft can fly.

Bowman said he hopes the department can get into Phase 2, the mission-ready phase, by January. With FAA approval, police could use the unmanned aircraft in emergency situations.

He said the unmanned aircraft could be useful for accident reconstruction, to identify hot spots in a fire and could have been used to evaluate the Cowboys Stadium's ice-covered roof during Super Bowl week.

But not everyone is happy to see the new eyes in the sky.

"Personally, I'm opposed, here in Arlington, to the drones," Kimberly Frankland said. "There is definitely an invasion of privacy factor with drones flying over and filming or recording whatever is going on down below."

Police say they would operate the aircraft using standard operating procedure for any law-enforcement mission. The unmanned aircraft would not do anything more than a regular helicopter would, they say.

"We are just looking at a vehicle that is a fraction of the cost, that is smaller, that will allow us -- in an urban area, where we can't use the bigger helicopter -- to assist with better, more efficient police operations," Hill said.

The aircraft come in various sizes and can be worth $2,500 to $300,000.

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