Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Cities eye drones as substitute for costly choppers

Unlikely to appear anytime soon

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As Winnipeg mulls the purchase of a police helicopter, a pair of North American cities has considered the use of remotely operated aircraft similar to the drones deployed in war zones.The Miami Dade Police Department has purchased a pair of unpiloted aerial vehicles, to evaluate as surveillance tools, while the Houston Police Department conducted a test flight of a military-style spyplane before deciding it had no use for the drone.

Compared to the cost of a police helicopter -- Winnipeg plans to spend $3.5 million on a vehicle, hangar, cameras, lights and other equipment -- drones come relatively cheap. Winnipeg firm Micropilot has surveillance planes for sale in the $20,000 to $30,000 range.

But even though the technology to send remotely operated police vehicles into the skies is inexpensive and available, the civilian world isn't quite ready.

For starters, both Transport Canada and the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration have concerns about drones falling from the sky in populated areas or crashing into other aircraft.

"Transport Canada doesn't know how to let unmanned vehicles fly into civilian airspace," said Howard Loewen, president of Micropilot, which sells the computers that control drones as well as the aircraft themselves. "This is new technology and you don't want it falling on someone's head."

Perhaps more importantly, the North American public doesn't appear to be thrilled with the privacy implications posed by civilian spy planes. According to Texan TV station KPRC, Houston residents were not amused when their police department conducted an unpublicized test.

Residents of other cities have reacted badly to the appearance of military spy aircraft above their communities. Mike Bradley, the mayor of Sarnia, Ont., has waged a campaign to stop the U.S. from flying a drone security balloon called an Aerostat over the Michigan-Ontario border.

"You hear the word security and no one wants to question it," said Bradley, who fears that crime-fighting, just like anti-terrorism efforts, can be used as a means to justify invasions of the public's privacy. "I think the same principles apply. In the new climate of fear around North America, it's easy for governments and police services to use it for their own benefit."

Bradley said he's skeptical of any new technology that purports to improve the efficiency of his police department. And that includes a police helicopter. "You're always told, 'When we do this, it'll be more efficient. But when you do demonstrate the benefits, they're usually intangible," he said.

As the chairman of Sarnia's police board, Bradley said he prefers hiring more police officers instead of purchasing new technology.

"At a time when police budgets are skyrocketing, it's hard to understand how you can make a rational case for it," he said.

The Winnipeg Police Service, however, claims a new helicopter will improve its ability to marshall resources on the ground.

The WPS did not consider the use of remotely operated drones instead, even though that question was put to Police Chief Keith McCaskill, said St. James Coun. Scott Fielding, city council's most vocal police-helicopter proponent.

Micropilot president Loewen surmised the civilian world simply isn't ready for drones, despite the fact they're much cheaper than helicopters.

"Anything a helicopter can do, a much smaller vehicle can do, but for much less than what they're talking about for the helicopter," he said. "But it's really still very experimental technology."

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition January 18, 2010 B2

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