The Orange County Sheriff's Department could deploy unmanned aerial vehicles (also known as drones or UAVs) to assist in various operations, including search and rescue missions, SWAT incidents, hostage situations and more, according to a report in the Orange County Register.
The department is considering the drones as a cheaper, more mobile alternative to helicopters, officials said.
"We are trying to be cutting-edge and stay on top of things to keep our community safe," Orange County Sheriff's Capt. Tim Moy told the newspaper.It could also save money. A recent search and rescue operation for lost hikers near Holy Jim Canyon deployed helicopters at a cost of about $1,000-$1,200 per hour, according to the newspaper. Some drones can be utilized for less than $25 per hour.
Another potential benefit of using drones – like the DraganflyerX6 – is to allow law enforcement to navigate areas helicopters cannot get to. Additionally, they can provide stealthy surveillance in SWAT situations or when dealing with hazardous devices.
"I don't want to give the impression that it can make a helicopter obsolete," said Sgt. Randy Sterett, who has supervised the sheriff's bomb squad for more than a decade. "To have a complete program, you need both and you need to have the option to use a UAV or a helicopter."
However, critics worry that drones would impinge on people's privacy, despite providing helpful information to law enforcement.
"It's not at all clear what the legality is of using a drone [with] high-tech imaging equipment or a drone that hovers 50 feet over backyards instead of the air space routinely used by commercial airlines," Peter Bibring, a staff attorney with the ACLU, told the Orange County Register. "The problem is that, right now, it isn't legislated."A bill was passed in Congress last year, known as the FAA Modernization and Reform Act of 2012, which essentially encourages furthering aviation programs featuring unmanned vehicles. But regulation of these programs, including when and where certain drones can be used, is often not clear.
"You would know if there were a helicopter hovering 400 feet above your house taking photographs. Widespread drones would present a real loss of privacy," Bibring told the newspaper. "Hopefully there will be a way to legislate for protection of privacy and allow police to use drones for law enforcement."
According to the paper, the Orange County Sheriff's Department will continue to gather information on drones and their effectiveness and efficiency.
However, any decision on if and when to deploy UAVs will be put off until the FAA establishes more concrete regulations on drone use.