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Will Use of UAVs Take Off?

UNMANNED aerial vehicles (UAVs), also known as unmanned aerial systems (UASs), could offer police departments a way to survey a scene from above. They cost about a tenth of the price of a helicopter, are quieter, and are easier to maintain, says Commander Charles “Sid” Heal of the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department.

There are two types of UASs—full-size and micros. But with both, a problem arises in that these devices can potentially fly into the same airspace as passenger planes and other aircraft. As a result, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) restricts their use. Currently, UASs can only be operated under a certificate of authorization waiver, says K. Douglas Davis, head of the FAA’s UAS program office.

Heal hasn’t been able to obtain such a waiver for his police department. Instead, he was asked by the FAA not to use his department’s UAS as he was preparing to test it. FAA spokesman Les Dorr says the only law enforcement “emergency” waiver they have issued was for an FBI missing person search in November 2006. The Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association (AOPA) stated that a North Carolina police department flying a UAS was told by the FAA to keep it under 400 feet and out of navigable airspace.

The FAA is currently reviewing its rules on UAS use. To better assess the risks associated with the aircraft the agency is conducting test projects with two metropolitan police departments.

At least with regard to the micros, the FAA should move more quickly, say some law enforcement officials. “The micro-unmanned aerial systems could be employed right now by police and fire departments to provide a higher level of public safety without jeopardizing the safety of manned aircraft operating in the national airspace system,” says Chief Donald L. Shinnamon, director of public safety for Holly Hills, Florida.

The FAA’s Davis acknowledges that hobbyists use micros without restrictions but says that’s because they tend to stay away from populated and aviation traffic areas.

The FAA’s cautionary approach is applauded by the AOPA. UAVs should not be able to share airspace with manned aircraft until they have a sense-and-avoid mechanism that allows them to avoid collision with manned aircraft, says AOPA spokesman Chris Dancy.