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Stephen J. Lee, Forum Communications, Published December 06 2012

Grand Forks County sheriff gets drone license from FAA

GRAND FORKS - The Grand Forks County Sheriff’s Department just received federal license to use a miniature helicopter drone as a new tool in law enforcement across 16 counties in northeast North Dakota.

The Draganflyer X6 carries only a camera, no weapons, and, weighing only two pounds, can be easily carried around in the back of a squad vehicle.

“It would be somebody asking for mutual aid, like a lost child or an escaped prisoner,” said Grand Forks Sheriff Bob Rost.

It will work especially well in the case of a hazardous materials spill, in which the helicopter can be used to monitor conditions that would harm humans who got too close, he said.

When flood waters rise as they do some springs in the Red River Valley, using the helicopter will make checking things out and keeping people safe a lot more effective, he said.

His department got the Federal Aviation Administration’s certificate of authority last week.

UND partnership

It’s part of a new partnership with UND’s aviation school in the ever-growing field of unmanned aircraft systems.

UND’s School of Aerospace Sciences has a major in piloting UAS and is looked at as one of the pioneers in the field.

Alan Frazier is the key liaison in the new partnership.

As an assistant professor of aviation at UND, and a part-time deputy with the sheriff’s department, the retired longtime police officer understands all the issues involved. Frazier also will be the chief pilot of the craft, aided by three others with links to UND’s aviation program.

Along with a modest grant of $16,000 from UND, Frazier has obtained some also modest grants from “industry partners” for the project, mainly to pay the hourly wages for the UAS pilots.

“In the law enforcement arena, it’s new to us here at UND, but we collaborate with other public entities, such as the Department of Energy, the Department of Health, many parts of the university that work closely with other government entities,” Frazier said. “Our pilots will not be making any law enforcement decisions. Those will all be made by officers working as part of the team.”

Some restrictions apply

The aircraft will fly below 400 feet and use video and still photography.

Frazier emphasized that the UND-owned craft, leased by the sheriff’s department, will not be used for any covert surveillance where those being surveilled cannot see the aircraft and know they are being surveilled.

That doesn’t mean it can’t be used in enforcing the law, though.

When the Nelson County Sheriff’s Department arrested members of the Brossart family during a standoff in summer 2011, it got help from a Customs and Border Protection Predator drone. Frazier said the Draganflyer X6 could have played a role in checking to see if family members are armed, it just would likely be seen doing so.

Lots of policy questions still are being drawn up and no use of the small helicopter in an actual case will happen until next year sometime, Rost said.

The partnership with UND pilots is not dissimilar to the set up the sheriff’s department uses with its water rescue team, which includes officers from other law enforcement agencies, but also trained volunteers, Rost said.

His department has been planning this move for at least two years, he said.

The price is more than right: a $1 per year lease. The Canadian manufacturer of the aircraft obviously welcomes the chance to demonstrate how well it can work, Rost and Frazier said.

Congress has ordered the FAA to facilitate the privatization of many UAS aircraft within a few years. But, so far, the FAA prohibits commercial use of such unmanned craft, Frazier said. So research grants and donations are the only way to fund such projects, he said.

Rost said the new deal will put his department on some cutting edge in going beyond what the few other local law enforcement agencies in the country using such equipment are doing.

“We have a sample of what their policies are, but we are going way beyond that. We feel others across the United States will be looking at us because we are doing things to control these aircraft that others are not.”