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Drones have dominated the headlines lately, with investigations by the ACLU and the Electronic Frontier Foundation into domestic drone use giving headaches to law enforcement all over. We pored through local news, document releases and company press releases to find out what drones were being sold to police departments for use in the field.
What we found was that law enforcement groups from huge city departments to county sheriffs were all enchanted by the idea of drones.
The market potential is already considered huge. It’s expected to grow by a billion dollars between now and 2016.
Here’s a look at the latest in drone tech over American skies, and where they’re seeing testing or active use.
The Skyseer was developed to be an extremely lightweight drone with imaging capabilities. It entered police use way back in 2006.
One of the huge advantages and initial selling points of the Skyseer was that it had a low price tag compared to police helicopter use, which ran around $1,000 per hour.
The Skyseer cost around $30,000 for a single unit, but that paid off rather quickly if it was used instead of helicopters.
The Skyseer is also nearly completely collapsible, and beaks down and rolls up to fit in essentially a tube.
The main user of the Skyseer was the LA County Sheriff's Office, who used it to experiment with full integration of drones into their police force.
The thing is, when they adopted the drone there weren't any significant regulations from the federal government on use.
Now, the FAA has said that drones for police use -- for the time being -- cannot go higher than 300 feet, and must stick to other constraints on their abilities.
The innovation in police drones has expanded in an entirely different direction since then.
The gas-powered T-Hawk is one of the strangest looking drones we've seen, but it's remarkably good at surveillance.
Designed by Honeywell, the 18 pound drone can is vertically launched, so it doesn't need any kind of runway. It can fly for 50 minutes and navigate during even 23 mph winds and rain.
Like most of the drones in domestic use, the T-Hawk beams video down to a ground station. It's got 10 flight plans pre-programmed in for quick use.
So far one of the police departments to publicly announce their use of drones for surveillance and reconnaissance has been the Miami-Dade Police Department (MDPD).
The Miami-Dade Police currently testing two of the small drones.
They're not allowed within the city limits of Miami, and the MDPD has said they aren't using the drones to record incidents.
The MDPD has also gone further than any other department in working with privacy activists, releasing the draft of their drone operator protocols and policies.
Draganfly Innovations has developed a number of drones designed for law enforcement use, the most popular being the X6 and the most recent being the X8.
Draganfly is selling the drones for use in accident investigations, traffic patrol assistance -- remember those 'Speed Limit Enforced By Aircraft' signs? -- crime scene evidence gathering, and even crowd control.
The X-8 has a foldable design, eight rotors, and a manual remote control system. It's battery powered and can fly 30 mph.
Right now, several police departments are experimenting with the Draganflyer drones.
The Saskatoon Police Service even used their X6 to investigate an accident.
AeroVironment, the manufacturer behind the military's Raven and Wasp drones, recently came out with a helicopter-style drone for police reconnaissance.
The drone is eay to pack up and has a 40 minute flight endurance. It comes with two cameras, one thermal and the other high resolution colour. It's got four rotors.
It flies between 100 and 500 feet, placing it squarely in the category of domestic use. It weighs only five pounds.
As of yet, neither AeroVironment nor any local news sources lists any current user of the drone.
Still, AeroVironment is pretty well poised to enter that market. Right now, they're the largest seller of small drones to the military, and their Raven and Wasp drones were developed alongside DARPA research.
In the meantime, AeroVironment has produced a number of promotional videos pitching the Qube to law enforcement. With the performance specifications that the Qube has, it's really only a matter of pricing and time until they start seeing active use.
Right now, the ShadowHawk is one of the most powerful available drones for civilian police use.
The helicopter drone comes with a Sony camera with 20x optical zoom. It's got a built in GPS system with incredible accuracy, and it's already so powerful that the military versions comes with space for a grenade launcher.
It weighs 50 pounds and can carry 22 lbs. The ShadowHawk has a max speed of 55 mph and a cruising speed of 35 mph, and it's got enough gas in the tank to fly fifteen miles.
The drone has even been mentioned on the Tonight Show.
Vanguard defence is also hoping that the ShadowHawk sees use in commercial endeavours, such as pipeline monitoring and commercial surveillance.
Given its speed and range, the ShadowHawk is likely great to use for border control operations.
The MQ-9 has seen service all over the world with the United States Air Force. It's one of the most important drones in combat at the moment. It's an upgraded version of the famous MQ-1 Predator drone.
It's 36 feet long and can carry a payload of nearly two tons. Its maximum speed is 555 mph, and has a range of more than 1000 miles.
This drone is not street-legal, so to speak, but it has seen use in law enforcement on U.S. soil.
One of the missions of the Homeland Security drone program is to help local police departments in law enforcement. Because of that, the Predator and Reaper have seen civilian law enforcement use near the U.S borders.
One instance of Predator use by civilian police occurred in 2011 when a drone was called in by a SWAT team near Lakota, North Dakota to help gather intelligence on a standoff.
Rodney Brossart threatened officers with death threats and a 16-hour standoff resulted. Eventually, Brossart was taken down with tasers using intelligence from a Homeland Security predator drone.
Even more, Homeland Security wants to accelerate the acquisition of drones by police forces, so this use of DHS drones as the cavalry could become more common.
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