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.
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“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.