In just a few months, the Ventura County Sheriff’s department could become the first law enforcement agency in the state to deploy an unmanned aircraft operationally, with FAA approval.
Soaring over the Ventura River bottom is a new tool in training, locating a downed hiker, a suspicious device, a suspect on the run.
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Capt. Chris Dunn, of the Ventura County Sheriff’s Department, said the machine fits in the trunk of a patrol car.
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For the first time, Dunn gave only NBC4 an up-close look at their unmanned aircraft system or "UAS."
They don’t call it a drone.
"It's a force multiplier, if you will," Dunn said. "It could help prevent harm to the public and help prevent harm to our staff."
Like when helicopters can't fly in bad weather, a UAS could be a better option and more cost effective. Ventura county uses the Qube, a $50,000 device made by Simi Valley-based Aero-vironment.
Agencies like the Ventura County Sheriff's Department have to go through a rigorous process to get to use this machine, said Steve Gitlin, a company spokesman.
It's a process that's near complete. Last October, Ventura County officials earned Federal Aviation Administration approval to test the device.
Two weeks ago, they submitted an application to use it operationally.
In a few months, it could become the first law enforcement agency in California and among the first in the country to have full government authorization.
Privacy advocates remain concerned.
Peter Bibring, a senior staff attorney for the ACLU of Southern California, said that any time law enforcement or any other organization has a device that is supposed to be used for a limited purpose, there's always the danger of mission creep.
Bibring suggests new laws and regulations, requiring warrants for non-emergency use. Right now, he says, the public has to trust local governments to write their own rules.
Bibring said there is also a danger that officers will use the tool for general surveillance.
Dunn said it’s part of the department's policy to not use drones for surveillance.
The unmanned aircraft is limited in its range, speed and battery life. Currently, the model Ventura is using has a battery life of 40 minutes.
Its objective will be life-saving emergencies and a promise of transparency, department officials said.
A number of other local law enforcement agencies are testing unmanned aircraft systems, including the LAPD.
The FAA does not allow drones in some major cities like LA, due to population density and heavy air traffic.