Drone School Teaches Students How to Fly, Build Unmanned Vehicles

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"Our biggest concern is that drones not become used for pervasive mass, routine surveillance of American life," said Jay Stanley of the American Civil Liberties Union. "It's one thing to use a drone in a particular law enforcement situation where there's a particular suspect, or if the police have a warrant, or if there's an emergency. But what we don't want to see is drones ... [hovering] over our neighborhoods 24/7, keeping track of everywhere that we drive or walk and the technology is there to do that. But you know, in our civilization, the government doesn't look over your shoulder."

The Miami Dade Police Department is one of over a dozen law enforcement agencies that are incorporating drones into their operations. They have an aviation unit that operates under strict rules to address privacy concerns.

"We can't just sit and say we are going to fly this thing from the station and we are going to surveille the city," said Lt. Aviel Sanchez, who is head the aviation unit. "We can only fly at 300 feet of altitude and line of sight of the pilot. We cannot fly currently at night. We can't fly over populated areas or we can't fly near high rises."

The unit trains with two micro-air vehicles, or MAVs. The MAVs are designed to hover above an area and send back pictures to a nearby command post.

"It basically assists us in getting an aerial view," Sanchez said, "for the ground units, the commanders, the incident commanders, and first responders on the scene so that they can better prepare to approach a situation."

During one training session, the Miami police practiced a situation in which a suspect had escaped from custody and the MAV was used to help assess what was unfolding during the manhunt. Pilot Patrick van Gils, who has been with the MDPD for 14 years, guided the MAV into position over several buildings where radio reports said the suspect was heading.

Van Gils could see from the images sent back by the MAV that the suspect was running across a clearing and into a particular building. At the command post, images from the drone helped the incident commander guide the SWAT team into position. With the drone above and the SWAT team outside the door, the fake suspect was quickly apprehended.

"We are hoping to use this for tactical situations," Van Gils said, "where we have someone shooting at the police. We don't want to obviously put any police lives in danger."

Despite the benefits of using drones, Florida is one of several states seeking to limit their use, even for law enforcement.

A recent incident at John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York, when the pilot of a commercial aircraft coming in for a landing reported seeing an alleged small recreational drone near his flight path, also underscored the need for safety measures.

As more and more drones take to our skies, Congress has ordered the FAA to establish a set of rules to integrate drones into the nation's airspace by 2015.

Seated beside the landing strip at Sarasota's model airplane field, LeMieux commented that, in the next few years, he expects to see "hundreds of thousands of vehicles" flying and being manufactured every year.

"When you talk about these low-altitude, small vehicles, which is 80 percent of what I think they will be, I don't see that as an issue," LeMieux said. "We're formulating rules on this right now, it's all kind of up in the air."

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