Source: Detroit Free Press
By: John Wisely
The Federal Aviation Administration has granted Michigan State Police permission to fly a drone anywhere in the state for law enforcement purposes.
The FAA gave the greenlight after a two-day visit to Michigan last month to review the program and safety procedures.
“We actually did our first mission last week when we flew over a fire scene in Ottawa County,” said 1st Lt. Chris Bush, commander of field support and aviation for the State Police.
Bush said the pilots used an infrared camera to locate hotspots in the area. It turned into a learning experience for the pilots, who navigated a neighborhood, dodging powerlines and other hazards.
The approval makes the State Police the first in the nation to have a statewide authorization to fly, though there are still restrictions. The drone is prohibited from flying within five miles of an airport for safety reasons, though in emergency, permission could be granted on a case-by-case basis.
In 2013, State Police used a Homeland Security grant to buy its $158,000 Aeryon SkyRanger, an unmanned aerial vehicle, better known as a drone, from Aeryon Labs, a Canadian company that makes them for military, law enforcement and commercial operations.
The drone carries a high-definition camera and can fly for about 50 minutes on a single battery charge and withstand wind gusts of up to 40 m.p.h. It has a range of several miles.
Four state troopers who are certified pilots will operate the vehicle and four other tactical flight officers will observe each flight as required, Bush said.
The green-light means state troopers could use an unmanned aircraft to photograph crash sites, search for lost people, inspect natural disasters and conduct surveillance.
The drone industry is booming worldwide with private citizens purchasing them to photograph crops and real estate, inspect powerlines, even shoot movies.
The FAA has been slow to approve commercial uses for drones but it also has been slow to chase down people who operate them that way.
The increased use of drones has prompted privacy concerns.
“There are legitimate uses but it’s important that we rein in big brother,” said former state Rep. Tom McMillin, who sponsored legislation to regulate police use of drones when he served in the Legislature.
His bill never passed, but he said several current legislators are interested in the topic and he expects someone to introduce similar legislation.
McMillin said current law covers issues like Peeping Toms and trespassing, but new legislation is needed to prevent abuses by police.
“I really wanted to make sure there is reporting on how it’s being used,” McMillin said. “If they are recording things that they shouldn’t, that stuff should be destroyed. We don’t just want them flying around watching people.”
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