Miami-Dade police buy drones

In places such as Kabul, Gaza, and Baghdad, unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) hovering over homes, following suspects, and tracking enemies of the state are a daily reality.

So where are the high-tech drones buzzing to next? Miami-Dade County, natch!

The Miami-Dade Police Department is poised to become the first large metro force using drones in its aerial missions. The department finalized a deal to buy a drone called T-Hawk from defense firm Honeywell and officially applied for permission from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) last month to begin flying it around the county.

What's not clear is how cops will sort out the raft of thorny privacy questions hovering around plans for using this powerful, new eye in the sky.

"At this point, it doesn't really matter if you're against this technology, because it's coming," says P. W. Singer, author of Wired for War and an expert on drones. "The precedent that is set in Miami could be huge."

Drones, or UAVs, have exploded in popularity over the past five years. As Singer writes in his book, the military barely used the technology during the invasion of Iraq in 2003. Now the Army and Air Force have more than 7,000 drones overseas, and 44 other countries use the devices.

But Miami-Dade is blazing new territory for civilian law enforcement agencies. Cops in Houston have tested UAVs, and a sheriff's office in Colorado has a drone to look for stranded hikers. But no one has deployed a drone in a large metro area.

"Miami-Dade is really at the front of this trend," says Lindsay Voss, a researcher with the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International (AUVSI), a trade group.

MDPD is keeping the details of its deal with Honeywell quiet. The department didn't respond to Riptide's Freedom of Information Act request about the contract, but sources confirm the drone purchased is Honeywell's T-Hawk.

The 20-pound drone, which resembles a hovering Roomba vacuum with cameras mounted on the sides, can fly for 40 minutes at a time, reach 10,500 feet, and cruise at up to 46 mph, according to one analysis.

The FAA has never approved a drone for regular flight in an urban area, and it's not clear how long it will take the department to get full clearance.

When that happens, MDPD will likely deploy the aircraft with its Special Response Teams. Packing powerful cameras, the drone could track suspects, sweep past houses, and peep through windows. Boosters say the gadget will keep the 305 safer.

"We've seen over in Iraq and Afghanistan, where troops have needed eye in sky, it's been enormously beneficial," Voss says. "Those same qualities can help cities too."

But drones have also stirred up strident criticism from human rights groups, which say the overseas robots bomb indiscriminately and violate basic rights. Amnesty International recently condemned Israel's smothering use of drones for surveillance in Gaza.

That might seem far-fetched in Miami-Dade — but politicians, police, and lawyers will soon have a whole new realm of privacy issues to fight about.

"All the legal and political and ethical... complications and questions we have to figure out are enormous," Singer says. "What seemed like science fiction just a few years ago is becoming reality."

 
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