MDPD is First Force to Get FAA Clearance to Fly Drones at Crime Scenes

​Next time you barricade yourself inside a parking garage with an AK-47, keep an eye out for the flying garbage can. It weighs about 18 pounds, can hover in midair, and is loaded with video cameras to send precise footage of your every move back to cops swarming on the ground outside.

The Miami-Dade Police Department recently got the first permit ever issued by the Federal Aviation Administration to fly its two $50,000 robotic planes, drones similar to those that have revolutionized warfare from Jalalabad to Mosul. The craft might just change policing forever too -- as soon as MDPD actually gets a chance to use the damn thing.

"We pretty much have to wait for a situation where we've got a shooter with a long rifle in a standoff," says Sgt. Andrew Cohen, head of the MDPD's aviation unit. "That's really the optimal situation we have to use this technology."

The Dade cops acquired two of the drones from military tech firm Honeywell last December, paying $50,000 for one through a federal grant and leasing the other for a pittance to test the concept for the company.

In YouTube demonstrations, the craft really does look like a round garbage bin atop whirling jet fans that allow it to zip up to 9,000 feet and precisely aim video cameras.

Unlike the drones dropping bombs on Afghan terrorists, though, the MDPD editions are unarmed -- and severely hamstrung in their mission. The FAA permit clears the drones to fly up to only 300 feet, Cohen says, and the force's rules limit them to operating inside a working crime scene.

For now, the robot mostly will give the cops an alternative to sending a manned helicopter into a gunman's line of fire during a standoff.

Privacy advocates have expressed concerns about police departments using the craft, but Cohen says the cops can't use the current models for surveillance even if they wanted to.

"If it sneaks up on you, something is very wrong with you," Cohen says. "You'd have to be either unconscious or dead not to hear this thing coming a mile away."

Honeywell has reclaimed MDPD's drones for some minor tinkering, but Cohen says the force expects to have them back "within the week," ready for the next standoff.

Follow Miami New Times on Facebook and Twitter @MiamiNewTimes.