Calo, in a phone interview, said the best protections for people would come from legislation at all levels of government. He said Congress should pass laws that direct the FAA to require applicants to say precisely how the drones will be used. In cases where there is a violation, "the FAA could hold them accountable by yanking their license," he said.
Speaking before an August gathering of drone manufacturers in Las Vegas, acting FAA Administrator Michael Huerta said the agency has repeatedly reached out for public input to address worries about how drones will be used, according to the Los Angeles Times. So, while fine-tuning the technology is important, Huerta said, "building human consensus ... is an equally important task and unbelievably complicated," according to the newspaper.
While Seattle police have received FAA approval to train drone operators, the department is not cleared by the federal agency to fly drones on missions. Several other law-enforcement agencies, however, do have FAA permission to deploy drones in police work.
The Mesa County Sheriff's Office in Colorado to date has flown more than 35 missions and primarily has used its unmanned aerial vehicle to reconstruct crime scenes and to assist in search-and-rescue missions, according to the program's director, Ben Miller.
At the Miami-Dade Police Department in Florida, drones are being used to provide information to tactical and SWAT teams in situations where the use of piloted aircraft "could pose a threat or risk to officers in the air," Sgt. Andrew Cohen said.
Policy vs. ordinance
The Seattle Police Department has drafted guidelines for when and how its drones will be used. It states that unmanned aerial systems would not be used to "conduct random surveillance activities."
However, the draft also leaves open the possibility that the drones will be deployed in other circumstances as well, which causes concern for the ACLU of Washington.
Jennifer Shaw, deputy director of the ACLU of Washington, said the Police Department's proposed policy is "too broad. They have a list of different emergencies and then a catchall phrase saying the drones can also be used in other situations if they get permission."
Calo said the drones could be susceptible to "mission creep," in which the use of the technology could deviate from the intended use. Metal detectors, for example, originally were used in high-security areas like airports but are now accepted at schools, he said.
Shaw said city leaders have an opportunity to pass an ordinance that would establish strict, immutable laws about how and when the police department is authorized to use drones.
"So long as it is a policy, it can be changed. An ordinance cannot be changed at will and is the only way we can be sure there is meaningful input," she has said.
Seattle police spokesman Sgt. Sean Whitcomb said the department plans to hold several other public hearings to explain the program. He said the department's policy on the use of drones could be altered by the feedback.
After that, the department's policy will be submitted to the City Council's committee on Public Safety, Civil Rights and Technology, possibly in December.
The committee could approve the department's policy or recommend that the full City Council pass ordinances to regulate the department's use of drones.
Information from Seattle Times archives is included in this report.
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