MEDINA, Ohio — Sheriff Tom Miller knows it sounds scary.
His agency has a drone, or as it’s known by its technical name, an unmanned aircraft system.
It’s a small, remote-controlled device — a type of helicopter, but it more resembles a UFO. Equipped with a thermal-imaging camera, it is designed to help deputies in emergency situations, such as search-and-rescue missions.
But that tiny aircraft, and hundreds of others like it around the country, are causing an outcry from privacy advocates who fear law enforcement agencies, in particular, have a new tool to spy on people.
Just last week, Seattle scrapped plans by police to use drones. And Charlottesville, Va., approved a two-year moratorium because of negative public reaction.
The San Francisco-based nonprofit Electronic Frontier Foundation created a stir by releasing a list of public entities nationwide that have applied to the Federal Aviation Administration for permission to use drones. Among the groups are the Medina County Sheriff’s Office, Lorain County Community College, Ohio Department of Transportation and Sinclair Community College in Dayton.
The Electronic Frontier Foundation report has prompted concerned phone calls from Medina residents and the media.
“I don’t blame them for being worried,” said Miller, who is reassuring people that the aircraft will help in emergency situations and not snoop on them. “I believe it is scary for people to think about it. I don’t want one flying over my house if I’m having a barbecue on a Sunday afternoon. But if my grandson is missing, I want every technology available to help find him.”
Any public entity that wants to fly a drone must first receive permission from the FAA. Congress last year also mandated that the federal agency develop rules to allow civilian drone use by September 2015.
The FAA estimates there are 327 active certificates for drones in the U.S. That’s up from 146 in 2009.
“Our focus isn’t what they want to do, but whether they can do it safely,” FAA spokesmen Les Dorr said.
Although many universities and colleges want to use drones for research and educational purposes, the Electronic Frontier Foundation’s main concern is how law enforcement would use them, spokeswoman Rebecca Jeschke said.
How long would videos be kept and how would agencies respond if they caught a person doing something embarrassing? she asked.
“There are a lot of good uses for drones in an academic setting, and even in law enforcement, but it’s important to come up with privacy policies,” Jeschke said.
Ben Gielow, government relations manager and general counsel for the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International in Arlington, Va., said he understands the privacy issue. But there are existing privacy laws in place, along with the Fourth Amendment, to ensure drones aren’t misused, he said.
His group represents 600 corporate members and 7,000 individuals from around the world.
What are they?
Unmanned planes and helicopters conjure up images of military drones used for reconnaissance, bombing and assassination missions.
The law enforcement drones in question are far removed.
For starters, it’s illegal to arm them, Miller said. “Nor do we have any desire to,” he added.
The drone — at least the Medina County-owned one — also isn’t designed for long-term surveillance. It weighs a mere 2.2 pounds and can stay in the air for only about 20 minutes at a time before losing its battery charge.
Its range, in general, is within eyesight, unless you want to go hunting for it.
That’s not to say it isn’t precise. Its flight pattern can be programmed just like a GPS used in a car.
A pair of goggles allows the pilot to see what the camera on the drone sees. That video also can be downloaded to a screen for others to watch.
A law enforcement drone can range in price from $40,000 to $150,000, depending on its features.
The law enforcement uses for drones are varied.
The drones can be invaluable in search-and-rescue cases, especially because they have a thermal-imaging camera that can detect heat.
Miller recalled the story of an elderly person who had wandered off in the winter. The sheriff sent a plane into the air to try to find the person, but the person had found shelter in a deer blind in the woods and couldn’t be seen.
A thermal-imaging camera would have picked up on that, the sheriff said.
Drones also could be helpful at hazmat scenes, hostage situations and battling large-scale fires.
But their potential benefit goes well beyond law enforcement, Gielow said. He noted that NASA has used drones to monitor weather patterns.
They also could help farmers with crop management, and the oil and gas industry with keeping an eye on pipelines, he said.
Lorain County Community College received permission from the FAA so its math and science students could build the aircraft and test them. Sinclair also wanted permission to use them for educational reasons.
“We believe it will be a multibillion-dollar industry in coming years, and multibillion-dollar industries require a trained work force,” Sinclair spokesman Adam Murka told the Toledo Blade.
Meanwhile, ODOT plans to fly a black foam plane with a point-and-shoot camera for aerial topographical imaging, which the agency does now with a piloted aircraft. The plane, which cost $15,000, weighs about a pound, spokesman Steve Faulkner said.
The Medina sheriff’s drone should come as no surprise to local residents. It was on full display at a sheriff’s open house last summer, and training is conducted in public.
It hasn’t been a secret, Miller said.
Sgt. James Sanford has been working with Vista Unmanned Aerial Systems on the development of the drone for eight years. The company, located in Seville, donated the TAV-200 to the county so it could be tested.
Sanford and Deputy Robert Locher, who operate the drone, are still training with it. The aircraft hasn’t been used in an emergency situation.
Bryon Macron, national sales representative for Vista, said the company just emerged from its product development phase and is marketing its devices only to law enforcement agencies.
Once people see the devices and realize they aren’t like those used by the military, they are more comfortable with them, he said.
“This drone is used to save lives,” Macron said.
One of the Vista drones is large enough, for example, to carry a life preserver to someone who is drowning.
Miller said his agency has no intention of spying on people with the aircraft.
If deputies were to use the drone in an investigation, he said, they first would obtain a search warrant through a judge — just like they would to use other surveillance equipment.
“There’s no sense risking losing a case because we didn’t follow a procedure that involves a judge,” the sheriff said.