Miami-Dade Police Drones Go Unused, but the Department Isn't Ready to Throw in the Towel

Look! In the sky! It's a bird! It's a plane! It's a flying drone with a camera strapped to it! Odds are you've seen the first two in Miami airspace. But so far, the only people to have spied the third in action are the folks in Miami-Dade Police Department training sessions.

A year and a half ago, MDPD received two T-Hawk drones — cousins of the ones patrolling the skies over Afghanistan — as part of a Department of Justice grant. It was the first large metro force in the nation to get these metallic eyes in the sky, and hoped to use them as support during hostage situations and police standoffs.

So far, at least, the department has yet to use one in action. It doesn't help that, per the Federal Aviation Administration, MDPD is allowed to fly the drones only below 300 feet, outside city limits, within visual sight of the operator, and during the day. (The devices can fly up to 9,000 feet and hover in midair.)

But MDPD isn't going to throw in the towel on its robot helpers. Last month, through the county commission, the department put in for a renewal of its FAA license to fly the drones. That measure, sponsored by Commissioner Jose "Pepe" Diaz, is expected to pass a vote this week.

So why keep the program going despite the heavy restrictions and lack of use (especially when privacy advocates cringe at the words drone and police in the same sentence)? Maj. Thomas Hanlon of MDPD's Special Patrol Bureau says practice will hopefully make perfect.

"Our ultimate goal is obviously to expand the realm with the FAA, building up the credibility of how we use [the drones]," Hanlon tells Riptide. "We're showing them that we operate this responsibly."

Does expanding that realm include using the drones for surveillance? Hanlon says MDPD has no plans to spy on you from afar.

What's best about the program for MDPD, though, is that it doesn't cost the department much to have the drones. One of the $50,000 machines was paid with the DOJ grant, while the other is leased from its developer, Honeywell, for $1 a year.

So for at least one more year, Miami-Dade police will continue tinkering and testing until they finally get a chance to put their drones to work.

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Jon Tayler