INDIANAPOLIS (WISH) – Only a handful of Indiana law enforcement agencies admit to having drones, despite claims from several departments that the small unmanned flying devices could be useful for a variety of police tactics from search and rescue operations to drug busts, an I-Team 8 investigation uncovered.
That news comes at a time when drone research in Indiana is growing, but access to the technology is becoming increasingly restricted through the creation of a new state law and stringent FAA regulations.
- PHOTOS | Drones flying over Indiana
In a telephone survey of more than 400 Indiana police agencies, I-Team 8 found only four departments – Fountain County Sheriff, Shelby County Sheriff, Rushville Police and Greenfield Police – said they use drones. Other agencies questioned by I-Team 8 – including Indiana State Police and IMPD – said they didn’t have one, didn’t have the resources or were holding off because of concerns raised by a new Indiana law restricting their use.
That new law (House Enrolled Act 1009) requires police agencies obtain a search warrant before using a drone – with some exceptions.
Among them: police may use a drone if there are “exigent circumstances”; if officers gain permission from a property owner; if there’s a natural disaster; or if it’s used for a geographical survey – so long as it’s not for criminal justice purposes. Exigent circumstances are situations in which officers have sufficient probable cause but do not have time to get a warrant before someone’s life may be in danger or evidence may be destroyed.
Indiana is only one of five states in the U.S. to pass a law either defining or restricting the use of drones, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
Rushville Police Chief Craig Tucker says he’s undeterred by the new law or criticisms raised about personal privacy. He sees it as a tool his department says has helped the community.
“Really what (the law) did is that it took most of the practices we were already employing and … established and formalized it in the law,” Tucker told I-Team 8. “There was a misconception that if agencies had (drones) we were going to be flying them right up to people’s back doors and looking in their windows and spying on people. That was never the intent.”
Tucker’s small department obtained a drone a year ago. It was paid for through federal drug forfeiture money and a private donation, Tucker said.
The small Phantom brand drone is a quad-copter with a mounted Go-Pro camera. Tucker would not divulge the private donor, but a similar drone used by Greenfield Police cost a little over $1,000, according to Greenfield Chief John Jester.
So far, Rushville Police Department has used its drone sparingly – once to locate a missing child and another time to assist Shelby County with a fatal DUI crash investigation last fall. That DUI case may mark the first time video from a drone has been used as evidence in an Indiana criminal case, Shelby County Deputy Prosecutor Ed Zych said.
“If you can get up above the crash scene you see some things from the air that you typically can’t see from the ground,” Tucker said.
In fact, the video Rushville’s drone provided from the crash scene impressed the Shelby County prosecutor so much, Shelby County purchased its own drone soon after that, according to Zych.
“It’s an investigative tool; it’s not just designed for prosecution or to file cases, it’s designed to help investigate – to figure out, do we have a crime and if so what was committed?” Zych said.
Greenfield Police Department may have been the first department in the state to use one. The department acquired its small drone last summer.
“As far as using them for police work, for accidents, I’m assuming we were probably one of the first and so far it’s worked out well for us,” Chief Jester said. “We’ve gotten calls from Dallas, a place in Wisconsin, and then other departments in Indiana as well” asking about how the department’s drones are used.
Unlike Rushville, which adopted a formal standard operating procedure for the use of its drone, Jester says his department has not yet formalized a drone policy but plans to use its drones solely for crash scene investigations or to provide mutual aid.
Larry Miller, a retiree and peace activist who spends his Fridays passing out pamphlets on drones in downtown Indianapolis, says he’s concerned by the increasing popularity of drones.
“We’re violating human rights,” Miller told I-Team 8.
As a peace activist, he protested in 2012 outside the Indianapolis facility for Raytheon – a major Pentagon contractor that’s developed weapon systems for drones used by the U.S. military.
A spokesman for Raytheon declined a request by I-Team 8 to tour its Indianapolis facility and talk about the emerging drone industry.
While the drones used by these small Indiana police departments are a far cry from the Predator or Reaper drones used by the U.S. military, Miller worries the popularity of these “mini drones” could lead to issues with airspace safety or infringe on personal privacy rights.
“I’m not against drones, I just think the public needs to be aware of some of the bad sides,” Miller said.
Quelling those concerns, Chief Tucker says, will simply take time and public education.
“Our objective isn’t to infringe on anybody’s rights – certainly not violate anybody’s 4th Amendment rights. So we’ll take the steps that we need to, to make sure we are within legal grounds,” Tucker said. “It’s kind of become a dirty word and what we want people to understand that we hope to utilize (drones) to help people as opposed to dropping munitions someplace.”
FAA REGULATIONS LIMIT DRONE USE TO ‘HOBBYISTS’
I-Team 8’s investigation found it’s not just law enforcement agencies that have found limited access to the use of mini drones.
Aaron Sheller and Matt Minnes were among a group of Indiana farmers who created the start-up company Precision Drone.
“It’s very exciting. A very exciting time for drone technology,” Sheller said.
The company, which manufacturers drones ranging in price from $4,500 to $17,000, hopes to sell them to farmers to provide them with clearer picture of crop conditions.
“Once we started using drone technology we could see areas of the field that we never would have thought had problems – had problems,” Sheller said.
There’s just one problem: FAA regulations prohibit the commercial use of drones.
When pressed about what actions the FAA might take against potential commercial misuse of drones, an FAA spokeswoman wrote that the federal agency has issued 18 warnings. I-Team 8 filed a Freedom of Information Act request asking for who the FAA has targeted or fined. A response was due by July 9.
In a response to emailed questions from I-Team 8, an FAA spokeswoman Elizabeth Cory wrote: “There is no method at this time for a business or company to fly a UAS (drone) in the National Airspace System.”
So can a private citizen use a drone? Absolutely.
In short, only so-called hobbyists can fly drones under FAA regulations – prohibiting private companies, realtors, farmers, and even journalists from using drones for commercial purposes or projects.
So far, the FAA has granted only two commercial permits, Cory said, adding “UAS flights for any other purpose – commercial photography or videography, for example – would need some level of FAA authorization.”