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Launching 'Big Brother' Flying Drones Over L.A.


Police have been using helicopters to chase criminals for years, but the Los Angeles Sheriff's Department is now experimenting with unmanned aerial things, planes, rather drones, to track fleeing suspects. Our tech contributor Xeni Jardin observed a test flight of one of the drones. She has this report.

XENI JARDIN reporting:

In an abandoned field behind a suburban Southern California shopping mall a few guys are flying what looks like a radio controlled model airplane.

(Soundbite of remote controlled airplane)

JARDIN: It's called Sky Seer, and starting this week the Los Angeles Sheriff's Department will begin using it to track fleeing suspects, find lost children, or watch situations that may be too hazardous for deputies to go near. It doesn't look like much of a crime fighter. The craft weighs about as much as a kite, and like a kite you can even fold it up and sling it over your back. It's pretty much identical to a hobby airplane, right up to the point where the operator...

Mr. SAM DELLATORE (Chang Industries): Flips a switch at about one hundred feet. At that point the computer on board takes over.

JARDIN: And that's when Sky Seer becomes a high tech surveillance machine, according to Sam Dellatore of Chang Industries, the small defense contracting firm that's developing it. On board Sky Seer's battery operated body is a GPS tracking system and tiny digital cameras that shoot video and send it wirelessly back to the ground. And operators can use remote controls to keep Sky Seer focused on its target.

Mr. DELLATORE: As the aircraft is flying, making these orbits, we can kind of see, you know, if we see the car or, or if we see the suspect running, and then we can switch modes to the tighter camera on the side that has a pan and tilt capability, and now he's flying around that point of interest.

JARDIN: The prototype system we're using today includes laptops, monitors and funny looking antennas all perched in the back of Sam's pick up truck. Sam clicks and drags markers on the computer screen and the drone follows. At two hundred and fifty feet in the air we can barely see it, but it can see us well enough to snap our mug shots. And while its 29 mile-an-hour top speed won't keep up with a getaway car, it will outpace even the fastest suspects on foot. So says Commander Sid Heal. He heads the Sheriff Department's technology exploration project.

Commander SID HEAL (Los Angeles Sheriff's Department): We've actually tried people running away from it and tried to follow them.

JARDIN: How did that work?

Commander HEAL: It works very good. You can't outrun it. Yeah, very similar to why you can't outrun a helicopter.

JARDIN: The Sky Seer is hardly a replacement for a helicopter. It's no good in rain, high winds or darkness, but at about $30,000 Sky Seers cost a lot less than the two and a half million dollar helicopters now deployed for daytime foot chases. The LA Sheriff's Department will start with just one Sky Seer. Eventually Heal hopes to digitally connect squad cars and department headquarters with real time footage from several drones. It's a way to help his deputies cover more territory.

Commander HEAL: There's so many incidents on a county-wide basis that when our Aero Bureau is up a lot of times we'll end up in a pursuit in one location and a shooting in another location and a burglary in progress in another location. They simply can't be in all those places.

JARDIN: Heal says Forest Service officials are considering using drones for fire control because they can get closer to deadly blazes than a helicopter with a human inside. Other agencies want to use them for rescue operations and for border patrol. According to Heal, the prospect of drones operating in all these arenas shouldn't raise civilian privacy concerns.

Commander HEAL: Well, for one thing, it's not going any place that we're not allowed to go now. So the thing is, is all it's doing is providing a safer way to do it.

JARDIN: Safer than helicopters but much harder for residents to see or hear, which may make broader use of drones controversial. What if a fleet of them tracked where you go and what you do, storing that information and sharing it with government? Heal says that's not how his department intends to use them, but debate is likely to grow as more agencies experiment with drones. The Sheriff's Department will begin using its first drone this week. A networked digital command and control center with the ability to monitor Sky Seer footage will go live in May. For DAY TO DAY, I'm Xeni Jardin. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Xeni Jardin
Xeni Jardin can be heard on NPR’s Day to Day, offering technology insights for listeners nationwide. Jardin is also a contributing writer for Wired Magazine, as well as a tech culture journalist and co-editor of the collaborative weblog BoingBoing.net, the award-winning "Directory of Wonderful Things."