A Houston area law enforcement agency is prepared to launch an unmanned drone that could someday carry weapons, Local 2 Investigates reported Friday.
The Montgomery County Sheriff's Office in Conroe paid $300,000 in federal homeland security grant money and Friday it received the ShadowHawk unmanned helicopter made by Vanguard Defense Industries of Spring.
A laptop computer is used to control the 50-pound unmanned chopper, and a game-like console is used to aim and zoom a powerful camera and infrared heat-seeking device mounted on the front.
"To be in on the ground floor of this is pretty exciting for us here in Montgomery County," Sheriff Tommy Gage said.
He said the Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV) could be used in hunting criminals who are running from police or assessing a scene where SWAT team officers are facing an active shooter.
Gage said it will also be deployed for criminal investigations such as drug shipments.
"We're not going to use it to be invading somebody's privacy. It'll be used for situations we have with criminals," Gage said.
It could have been used to help firefighters in the recent tri-county wildfires, he said, and it also could be handy in future scenarios like a recent search for a missing college student in The Woodlands.
In 2007, Local 2 Investigates uncovered a secret Houston Police Department test of a different kind of drone, fueling a nationwide debate over civil liberties and privacy.
A constitutional law professor and other civil liberties watchdogs told Local 2 Investigates that questions about police searches without warrants would crop up, as well as police spying into back yards or other private areas.
HPD fueled that 2007 controversy even further by suggesting that drones could be used for writing speeding tickets.
The backlash prompted Mayor Annise Parker to scrap HPD's plans for using drones when she took office.
Gage said he is aware of those concerns.
"No matter what we do in law enforcement, somebody's going to question it, but we're going to do the right thing, and I can assure you of that," he said.
He said two deputies are finishing their training and should be ready to fly police missions within the next month.
Tapped to operate the Montgomery County Sheriff's helicopter UAV are Sgt. Melvin Franklin, a licensed pilot, and Lt. Damon Hall, who heads the department's crime lab and crime scene unit. The sheriff said Hall's SWAT team background will assist the department in using the new tool on hostage standoffs or active shooter events.
The ShadowHawk chopper was displayed on a small conference room table as it was unveiled Friday. It displayed a sheriff's logo and flashing blue lights on the side. On the front of the chopper, a grapefruit sized back unit houses the camera and Forward Looking Infra-Red (FLIR) sensor that can detect heat from a gun or a suspect's body.
Deputies said they can quickly switch between day and night vision on the camera, which is zoomed and moved from side to side by a game-like console inside a police command vehicle on the ground.
The display shows up on a small TV-like box, while the actual flight controls are handled from a laptop computer.
Michael Buscher, chief executive officer of manufacturer Vanguard Defense Industries, said this is the first local law enforcement agency to buy one of his units.
He said they are designed to carry weapons for local law enforcement.
"The aircraft has the capability to have a number of different systems on board. Mostly, for law enforcement, we focus on what we call less lethal systems," he said, including Tazers that can send a jolt to a criminal on the ground or a gun that fires bean bags known as a "stun baton."
"You have a stun baton where you can actually engage somebody at altitude with the aircraft. A stun baton would essentially disable a suspect," he said.
Gage said he has no immediate plans to outfit his drone with weapons, and he also ruled out using the chopper for catching speeders.
"We're not going to use it for that," he said.
Chief Deputy Randy McDaniel said, "I'm tickled to death" about using the drone, pointing out that in his years of police work he could imagine countless incidents having ended more quickly and easily.
"It's so simple in its design and the objectives, you just wonder why anyone would choose not to have it," said McDaniel.
At the same time Houston police were testing a different drone, the Miami-Dade Metro Police department was also taking test flights of a helicopter UAV, and the Federal Aviation Administration said that department is now using its drone for local police work.
The San Diego Police Department also made local headlines in 2008 for beginning its own flights with a fixed-wing UAV.
But Les Dorr, an FAA spokesman in Washington, said very few local police departments actually have the required certificate of authorization (COA) to fly police missions nationwide.
He said Montgomery County is the first COA by a local police department in all of Texas.
In September 2008, the Government Accountability Office issued a 73-page report that raised issues about police drones endangering airspace for small planes or even commercial airliners.
The report's author, Gerald Dillingham, told Local 2 Investigates that 65 percent of the crashes of military drones on the battlefield were caused by mechanical failures.
He said a police UAV could lose its link to the ground controllers if wind knocks the aircraft out of range or the radio frequencies are disrupted.
"If you lose that communication link as the result of that turbulence or for any other reason, then you have an aircraft that is not in control and can in fact crash into something on the ground or another aircraft," said Dillingham.
Pilots of small planes expressed those concerns in the original 2007 Local 2 Investigates reporting on police drones, and the FAA reported then that police departments across the country were lining up to apply for their own drones.
At Montgomery County, Franklin said an onboard GPS system is designed to keep the UAV on target and connected with the ground controllers. He said coordinates are plotted in advance and a command is given for the UAV to fly directly to that spot, adjusting to turbulence and other factors. He said he and the other controller can alter "waypoints" quickly on the laptop to move the chopper to areas that had not previously been mapped out. He said the aircraft moves at a speed of 30 knots, which he said makes it unsuitable for police pursuits.
Small aircraft pilots have expressed concerns that drones cannot practice the "see and avoid" rule that keeps aircraft from colliding in mid-air. Since the camera may be aimed somewhere else, pilots said police controllers may not be able to see and avoid other aircraft in the area during a sudden police emergency.
Gage said he would take every concern into account as his UAV is deployed.
The only routine law enforcement flights inside the United States over the past four years have been the Department of Homeland Security's Immigration and Customs Enforcement. Their border flights over Texas and Arizona have included one crash, where the drone lost its link to the ground controller.