UAVs - Police pioneers

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Can UAVs help law enforcement? With the FAA as partner, two US cities are experimenting this year to see what they can offer

The Houston Police Department is close to launching a one-year demonstration with the US Federal Aviation Administration and unmanned aircraft system manufacturer Insitu. The object of the test will be to show how Insitu's 20kg (44lb) Insight UAS might aid law enforcement agencies in a wide variety of tasks, from traffic monitoring during hurricanes to identifying illegal shrimp fishing offshore.

The pilot programme is one of two high-profile tests on tap this year in which the FAA is partnering with law enforcement in an attempt to gather data for its small UAS rulemaking effort, launched late last month, as well as to learn more about unmanned operations. The other project, which is based in Miami-Dade County in Florida, will use a Honeywell micro air vehicle (MAV) to help Miami-Dade police with surveillance during special operations.

Finding money to acquire the equipment and keep the tests running could be problematic however, exacerbated by the fact that the FAA has no budget to support the projects.

Doug Davis, director of the FAA's unmanned aircraft programme office, says his staff of 14 is "challenged" to keep up with the requests for experimental airworthiness certificates for the aircraft, certificates of authorisation for the operators and a great many questions coming from potential UAS operators unfamiliar with FAA regulations.

Police departments and other governmental agencies must obtain a certificate of authorisation to fly in civil airspace. The agreements, which generally last for one year, contain safety caveats that can include using chase aircraft or having primary radar coverage.

HURRICANE RITA

The Houston police and Insitu obtained a certificate to demonstrate the system to Houston mayor Bill White in November 2007. White originally asked the police to research unmanned aircraft following Hurricane Rita in 2005, when thousands of motorists were stranded on gridlocked Houston highways after officials urged citizens to leave town.

The city's aviation assets, which included five MD500 helicopters, had been moved 645km (400 miles) west in anticipation of the hurricane's arrival, and were not available to help oversee the evacuation. "We didn't have the information we needed," says Capt Thomas Runyan, head of Houston police's helicopter division.

The test this summer was originally envisaged as a 90-day campaign, says Runyan, but has expanded to what may be a year-long endeavour. The change came after three days of technical meetings with the FAA in early April. "It was decided that a fairly significant number of test flights would be needed to get the data [the FAA wants to obtain]," says Runyan.

While Insitu will provide the aircraft, pilots, ground stations and support for the programme - a contribution Runyan says represents about $4 million in in-kind services - the uncertainty in the duration of the test means Houston must come up with as much as $2 million of additional funding, monies Runyan and Insitu are trying to obtain from the Texas delegation in the US Congress or from other sources. "There's always the possibility [the funding] won't come through," says Runyan, a development he says would kill the project.

Officials have identified two potential test sites, both in remote locations. The FAA is negotiating with police on training and operational concepts. Davis says a pilot programme could be in place for the hurricane season.

Runyan says elements of Houston's certificate of authorisation include a requirement that Insitu pilots, with second class medical certificates, fly the unmanned aircraft as Houston police pilots observe. The operators must maintain at least 4.8km line-of-sight visibility with the aircraft, which must stay within 2nm (3.7km) of the test area at less than 1,000ft (305m) above the ground. The aircraft also must stay in contact with air traffic controllers. If contact with the unmanned aircraft is lost for more than a certain period, the aircraft must automatically return to a planned ditching site for a belly landing, says Runyan.

Meanwhile Davis says the FAA "has a certificate of authorisation ready" for the Miami trial, in which the ducted-fan MAV could be used as a tactical aid for SWAT teams in an urban setting where the department's helicopter crews would be endangered. Davis says the Miami-Dade police were the first to approach the agency, in their case because "people were shooting at manned aircraft". Honeywell received an experimental airworthiness certificate for the MAV early this year.

Davis says the FAA completed a frequency spectrum survey in the proposed Miami test area, a remote corner of the Everglades, in which engineers determine potential interference that could affect the link between operator and aircraft. Of particular concern is the 900Mhz frequency range, "where a lot of radio control operators tend to populate", he says.

Dan Fouts, business development manager for Honeywell, says the Miami-Dade police plan to purchase one MAV system, including the control station and ground support equipment and daylight camera, for the test. Miami-Dade police officials say they are looking at various options to fund the project, including grants, and could not comment on purchase arrangements. Honeywell officials in February told Flight International that the police department planned to buy one MAV and would conduct the four- to six-month pilot program using a second, leased MAV.

How Houston might go forward with a UAS acquisition pending a successful demonstration is unclear. "We would prefer to buy [a system]," says Runyan, "but we're a little concerned about buying versus leasing because of rapid advances in technology."