State Police, other agencies look for drone regulations

It might look like a science fiction movie but police drones with sophisticated cameras tracking suspects from the air could soon be a possibility.

The FAA is ready to release its guidelines on the controversial flying machines and agencies like the Massachusetts State Police are looking to get on board.

“I see value for it, I think there’s many, many applications that we could use them for, accident reconstruction on major interstates, for many of the special events that we run,” State Police Col. Tim Alben said.

The DEA, ATF, and Customs and Border Protection have already used drones.

Last June the then director of the FBI told a Senate committee that his agency had used drones for surveillance.

Locally, Andover police told residents a drone would be used during the town’s 5k road race on Thanksgiving, flying below the FAA requirement of 400 ft.

The FAA says it has a list of law enforcement agencies that are looking to use the unmanned aircraft for surveillance and public safety.

But with no privacy laws on the books to deal with drones the ACLU worries police could abuse the new technology and trample on privacy rights.

“We’re simply saying that if police want to use drones they should go to a judge  and get a warrant  to show that they suspect the evidence they’ll return will be evidence of a crime,” Kade Crockford, Director of the ACLU’s Technology for Liberty project, said.

Agencies like the state police say a warrant should only be needed if the drone goes inside a building.

“We’ve flown, in our aviation unit, helicopters for decades here and never required a warrant to fly over any particular area,” Alben said.

Massachusetts State Senator Bob Hedlund said he feels strongly that law enforcement needs some flight restrictions.

He even sponsored a bill to limit how and when police use drones.

“It’s clear that drones will be governed by the FAA, commercial use of drones. But it really is wide open in terms of what law enforcement can use the drones for,” Hedlund said.

The FAA was scheduled to release a report on their proposed guidelines by the end of the year, but that may now be up in the air.

In Massachusetts the bill on police use of drones will be heading back to committee next year for consideration.