06/23/2006

FAA grounds L.A. sheriff's drone air force

By Lynn Doan and Ashraf Khalil, Times Staff Writers

The Federal Aviation Administration has temporarily shot down Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca's plans to launch unmanned surveillance drones to monitor crime.

The Sheriff's Department has been working for seven years with a defense contractor to build SkySeer, a 3-foot-long remote-controlled model airplane with a 6 1/2 -foot wingspan and tiny video cameras that can fit in the back of a patrol car when disassembled.

Baca and other officials had seen the drones as a major advance in law enforcement, providing deputies with a bird's-eye view of standoffs and other surveillance operations without the noise and high visibility of helicopters.

The project hit a milestone last week when the Sheriff's Department performed its first demonstration for the media — showing the plane take off, beam its video images 250 feet to deputies below and then landing.

But the test raised the ire of FAA officials, who said they had told the Sheriff's Department a week earlier that it could not fly the drones without receiving a certificate of authorization from the agency.

"I wouldn't want to term us as peeved, but we were definitely surprised," FAA spokeswoman Laura Brown said. Sheriff's officials were told "that we were more than willing to sit down and talk about a certificate — but that was before their first flight."

The FAA is now investigating Friday's demonstration to determine whether the Sheriff's Department should face disciplinary action.

Until the investigation is over, Brown said, the agency will not authorize the county's use of the drones.

Sheriff's officials dismissed the conflict as a misunderstanding that would soon be cleared up. But they were incredulous about what they consider red tape getting in the way of their law enforcement tool.

"A private citizen can go to the store and buy one of those model airplanes and fly them around. But because we're doing it as a public service, we have to deal with the FAA?" said Sheriff's Cmdr. Sid Heal. Once they "take a deep breath and realize there was no malice intended, it will get back on track."

Baca said Wednesday that he was unaware of the FAA investigation but downplayed the dispute.

"There's no reason for the FAA to be concerned," he said, calling the drones "non-invasive and nearly silent."

The Sheriff's Department has been developing the drone in conjunction with La Verne-based defense contractor, Octatron.

The drones are still in the testing stages. But if they prove effective, the department planned to buy 20 SkySeers at a cost of $20,000 to $30,000 each.

Backers say the drones are much cheaper to operate than helicopters and are virtually silent, something that can be an advantage in undercover surveillance.

But that silence worries privacy advocates, who fear the Sheriff's Department will spy on people.

"Drones are far more nimble and silent; at least with a helicopter, you know you're being looked at," said Beth Givens, founder of the Privacy Rights Clearinghouse in San Diego. "The use of drones steps over the line."

Heal said the department has no plans to spy on people. Rather, they would most likely be used to track fleeing suspects, monitor hostage situations and search for missing children and hikers, he said.

The drone would fly about 300 feet above the ground, much lower than small planes and helicopters.

Still, the FAA said it tightly regulates all drones and other "unmanned aerial vehicles" because they could interfere with other aviation activity.

"We've already got certain lanes designated in the sky out there," Brown said. "There are certain ways that UAVs must operate so that they have less impact on other types of things."

The FAA is especially concerned about drones in Los Angeles, which has very congested airspace and where certain types of planes and helicopters are assigned specific "air corridors."

But it's not unheard of for the FAA to reserve airspace for drones.

The FAA recently created such a zone in New Mexico to accommodate a Homeland Security drone that patrolled the U.S.-Mexico border in search of illegal border crossings.

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L.A. sheriff to test out unmanned drone for crimefighting
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