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Sheriff Wants Aerial Surveillance Drones To Patrol Alameda County

Sheriff Greg Ahern seeks a grant to make Alameda County one of the first locales in California to deploy unmanned aerial systems in civilian settings.

Sheriff Gregory Ahern is seeking a grant to purchase unmanned aerial drones to provide video and infrared surveillance in police, fire and rescue settings. 

"We're not getting this thing on Tuesday," Ahern told his advisory committee in a briefing Monday afternoon.

But the sheriff's office has already done preliminary tests of a four-pound drone that could carry a camera to provide live video or an infrared device to track the heat of bodies, fires or possibly the lights of indoor pot growing operations.

The device, which would cost $50,000 to $100,000, would be remotely controlled by an operator on the ground and hover over crime or fire scenes.

"This would be less expensive, more valuable and have more uses (than a helicopter)," said Ahern, adding that a helicopter cost $3 million buy and upwards of $300 an hour to operate.

If Ahern's plan moves forward, Alameda County would become a pioneer in the deployment of small -- and, so far, nonlethal -- versions of the drones that the military is using in Afghanistan.

The county's plans are the tip of an iceberg that Congress set in motion when it passed the Federal Aviation Administration reauthorization act earlier this year.

That act required the FAA to create rules to permit the deployment of civilian drones weighing 25 pounds or less - not just for law enforcement but for any business that wants eyes in the skies.

News sources that followed the development estimate that 30,000 civilian drones could be flying U.S. skies by 2020.

The American Civil Liberties Union has criticized the move toward civilian drones.

“This bill would push the nation willy-nilly toward an era of aerial surveillance without any steps to protect the traditional privacy that Americans have always enjoyed and expected,” the ACLU has said.

The FAA is supposed to write rules governing the use of civilian drones for law enforcement by the end of 2012. At that point the county will apply for a "certificate of authorization" or a permit spelling out what sorts of uses would be permitted.

Sheriff's department officials said Alameda County could be the first jurisdiction in California to deploy drones and among the first nationwide.

Members of the sheriff's advisory committee asked Monday if the drones would be armed. They were told there no.

Ross Stapleton-Gray October 09, 2012 at 07:35 PM
I think the "and, so far, nonlethal" commentary is a bit over the top. I was coming to read this to weigh in negatively on "surveillance drones," for similar concerns as the ACLU's, but it's a very good point that such things can replace helicopters now used in various police and firefighting missions at a fraction of the cost. (I'm a former intelligence analyst, who's been actively interested in civil liberties issues for about as long.) If/when/as we do see such things deployed, however, it ought to be with more transparency than we're used to, e.g., release of records on how often used, for what purposes, and how safeguards are adhered to to ensure that they aren't abused. On another front, it'll be interesting to see the fallout (so to speak) when some of these thousands of drones nationwide manage to accidentally crash into aircraft, or living rooms.
Rashid Nasim October 09, 2012 at 10:41 PM
Rashid Nasim This is exciting. This will not only save money; it will also keep our law enforcement men and women safe. Just picture staff of 2-3 in a helicopter chasing bad guys; how dangerous this is. with this technology lives and money will be saved and I am sure we will be more efficient. Good thinking and good luck to our Sheriff. Thanks
Joshua D. Wise October 10, 2012 at 01:59 AM
Lol @ Rashid. Yeah, I can't count the number of times a police helicopter has crashed while casually following a suspect. Probably because it's in the vicinity of 0, ever. Car chases are dangerous, and there's no abating that. Cops love ramming cars at top speed into suburban homes, and then shooting at the homes with children in them. The helos just buzz overhead. Two problems here, first that the FAA is going to be setting the standards for 4th Amendment protection. They know nothing of such things, this is easily forseeable millions of tax dollars and thousands of government hours that they will generate in lawsuits when the FAA green lights all behavior by police. Second The cops will then simply spy on everyone. Not too useful with standard cameras, so they'll need the IR and night vision, and voila, hundreds of thousands in local money to violate the Constitution based on FAA rules which will ultimately cost tax payers hundreds of millions nationally in equipment to spy on citizens as well as subsequent cases, lawsuits, etc.
D. Mehrten October 10, 2012 at 08:27 PM
Drones, in Berkeley? Noooo...
Robert O'Connor October 10, 2012 at 11:08 PM
This crap needs to be stopped now! Thinking this is something both parties can agree on! No Flying Robot Big Brother! It is slippery slope next the Sheriff will add a shotgun to it! the option is available! This Sheriff demonstrates a complete lack of concern for citizen privacy rights and his priorities out of touch with the citizens concerns and needs, Oakland law enforcement cannot stop a homicide spree on the streets but this knucklehead wants to sit in his office looking into windows for pot plants! All of the Military money, training and equipment like useless Military Tanks, Law Enforcement gets from DHS is simply bribes for these Chiefs to play along with the program... Stop the insanity, Citizens should begin immediate Sheriff recall for this stunt.
Joshua D. Wise October 10, 2012 at 11:11 PM
I'm laughing heartily D. Mehrten.
Tatter Salad October 11, 2012 at 06:17 AM
Orwellian* measures are dealt with by Orwellian counter measures. Just as long as it's not too big of a drone. The neighbor kids have been looking for cool target to use their .22 on, and this puppy would be just the thing, as long as when it comes down it wouldn't cause major damage. * " 'Orwellian' is an adjective describing the situation, idea, or societal condition that George Orwell identified as being destructive to the welfare of a free and open society. It connotes an attitude and a policy of control by propaganda, surveillance, misinformation, denial of truth, and manipulation of the historical record, ...practiced by modern repressive governments."
Li_ October 11, 2012 at 03:57 PM
Let's see the "What are all the things a drone can do for you" video that they used to inform the military buyers. We can't set up parameters if we don't know the limits of drone capability. Invading privacy would normally require a judicial warrant? I'd like to exercise my right to opt out. Surely, if students can opt out of science and human reproduction classes, there is an opt out clause for county drone coverage. Or maybe this is a good time to invent roofing material that is impervious to drone serveillance?
Senior A. Titude October 11, 2012 at 09:20 PM
My initial reaction was to get creeped-out. Watch the BBC mini-series "The Last Enemy" on Masterpiece theater to see where it can go. IF we go there, I want to see community review and publication of the flight logs on a regular basis. I'm not comfortable with the "system" reviewing itself. I am neither a conspiracy theorist nor paranoid but the potential for abuse is extreme.
Laurence Schechtman October 12, 2012 at 09:21 PM
I don't want to be watched 24/7. We need a serious campaign to defeat this insanity, and to defeat this sheriff at the polls.
joel October 13, 2012 at 01:12 AM
this is the most wastefull idea for the county , by the way what do you plan to do with commercial and private aircraft from oakland , san jose, san francisco all international airport combined with all private plane and military from travis andv onazuka tell them they can't fly . Sound like Police state to me , we are not in Afganistan , You can however fly them over the national park which have become drug heaven .
Tatter Salad October 14, 2012 at 07:40 AM
If they begin flying one at night, I bet it's 'terminated' within two weeks. I'm all for it because San Diego programmers need jobs. In Richmond and East Oakland the 'kids' are looking forward to it... they didn't buy 30-08's and AK's for nothing. ('What'd you do last night Little-E?" "I brought down $50K worth of Ghetto-bird without harming a soul"!)

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