TIJUANA, Mexico — Just across the border from the USA, police have begun using drones carrying video cameras to patrol residential neighborhoods and watch over parts of the city often visited by Americans.
Tijuana's use of low-altitude unmanned aircraft for law enforcement surveillance, in darkness as well as daylight, appears to far exceed what state and local police agencies have been permitted to experiment with in the USA.
Unburdened by the sort of aviation restrictions and privacy concerns that have slowed domestic U.S. drone use, Tijuana police recently purchased three specially configured commercial drones and are testing their use in flight, said Alejandro Lares, the city's new chief of police.
He said he hopes to put them into full normal operation within weeks.
"How are we going to use them? Basically, it's preventing crime,'' said Lares, 35, who became secretary of public safety in December, a post that puts him in charge of the municipal police force where he had been an officer for eight years.
"What we're doing is implementing technology into our community law enforcement,'' he said in a recent interview. "We don't have any regulations or laws that don't permit us to use them.''
The Mexican drones are far smaller than the large military Predator drones the U.S. Customs and Border Patrol agency has deployed along the border. The Border Patrol is one of the only agencies aside from the military allowed by the Federal Aviation Administration to fly unmanned aircraft. A recent report by the Electronic Frontier Foundation said the Border Patrol flew 687 surveillance missions on behalf of other agencies, some of them police, from 2010 to 2012.
While the United States develops its drone laws, the experiment on its doorstep offers a glimpse of how domestic police could soon use the technology if permitted.
Tijuana's drones are off-the-shelf commercial units produced by 3D Robotics, a company with offices in Tijuana and the USA. They are equipped with video cameras and night-vision capability. The company confirmed the deal but offered few specifics.
"We sell an open source platform that is being used for a variety of innovative applications, but we remain agnostic on how our technology is being used,'' company spokeswoman Sue Rosenstock said.
Small enough to rest on a desktop, the drones have eight propellers and battery capacity allowing them to fly about 20 minutes at a time, Lares said. He said Tijuana police can fly them at altitudes over 1,300 feet – well above the 400-foot limit the Federal Aviation Administration has imposed for most U.S. domestic drones.
They can be piloted remotely by officers on the ground and can be programmed to fly in an automated route, he said. They beam live video images to the police command and control center in the Zona Rio section of the city, where staff monitor a giant bank of video screens with images from approximately 600 stationary surveillance cameras located around the city. Police store and keep the drones' digital imagery for possible review as well, he said.
They are used to patrol targeted high-crime areas, such as neighborhoods where burglaries and car thefts are common, and in areas where tourists frequent, such as Avenida Revolucion, the main tourism boulevard in Zona Centro, or downtown Tijuana, he said. Tijuana wants to use drones as a force multiplier for its officers.
"Right now, our No. 1 concern is house burglaries,'' Lares said. "Definitely we're going to use the drones to help us out. Eyes in sky – it's like having 20 officers on patrol or more.''
The small drones are relatively inexpensive, meaning cost is not an obstacle even for a force where staffing and salaries are smaller than in the USA. Lares said his force pays about $12,000 for the hardware, spare parts, enhanced batteries and a year's worth of maintenance and repair by the vendor. He has at least four officers assigned to operate the drones.
Jay Stanley, senior policy analyst and privacy expert with the American Civil Liberties Union, said U.S. police need written authorization from the FAA to fly a drone and must follow strict limitations, including flying below 400 feet above ground and operating in daylight only. He said only a few police agencies have pioneered drone use, such as Miami-Dade police, in limited experiments or specific missions.
He said pressure is mounting on both sides of the issue, from privacy advocates who want limits on drone use to police who want them as crime-fighting tools. Since last year, 43 states have considered legislation that would limit drone use, and nine states have enacted laws, Stanley said.
"We're in the very early days of drone deployments, but Congress has ordered the FAA to loosen the rules to make it much easier for police departments and others to fly drones,'' he said.
"There are a lot of privacy issues that can come up,'' he said. "The big concern is that we not find drones being used for pervasive suspicion-less surveillance of everyone all the time.''
Lares said the drones are effective at helping police keep an eye on crime. He said they could even be used to watch police officers if they are suspected of corruption or shaking down citizens.
He said no one has raised objections to his force's use of drones.
"It's going to help me out,'' he said. "Even the bad guys ... they're going to know now there's something in the air that might be watching them.
"It's a big advantage,'' he said. "It may be a small step in community policing, but it's huge for our future.''