The sky is the limit: Routt County invests in drone technology for law enforcement and wildfires, as legal groups worry about becoming a ‘surveillance society’
STEAMBOAT SPRINGS — In what seemed like a scene straight out of a spy movie, deputy Cody Owens with the Routt County Sheriff’s Office pulled a sleek, silver briefcase from his patrol truck and placed it next to a remote attached to an iPad.
Inside the briefcase was a black-and-white contraption that, to a passerby, could have been a kid’s toy or a military weapon. With a few adjustments and some work on the remote, Owens activated four propellers on the device, which launched it into the blue sky.
Unmanned aerial vehicles, known as drones, have become the Swiss Army knife of the aviation world. What began as a military device in the early 2000s is now common among filmmakers, law enforcement agencies and first responders, among others.
A rise in affordability of drone technology and its far-ranging applications have made it one of the fastest-growing markets in the country. The U.S. Federal Aviation Administration estimates the use of drones will increase tenfold by 2021.
Based on that prediction, more than 5 million drones could be in use by 2021.
Tech-savvy companies like Amazon and Google have said drones could be delivering packages to Americans’ doorsteps “in a matter of months.”
Since the start of the year, agencies in Routt County, namely the Sheriff’s Office and the Department of Emergency Management, have invested in drones primarily for use in firefighting efforts and rescue missions.
Owens is one of two pilots — deputy John Daschle is the other — in the Sheriff’s Office drone program. Fellow deputy Aaron Arsenault oversees the operations.
“It is definitely the wave of the future as far as first responder stuff,” Arsenault said of drone technology. “It is only going to get bigger, I think.”
But as more people and organizations use drones, lawmakers have tried to keep pace with the developments, putting restraints on the industry to avoid becoming a “surveillance society” that does not respect people’s privacy.
Use in law enforcement
The Sheriff’s Office has bought two drones since initiating its drone program in January. Owens and Daschle usually keep the equipment in their patrol cars, ready to deploy during an emergency call.
“This is my setup,” Owens said, gesturing to an arsenal of batteries, screens and cameras inside the truck.
His drone, which cost about $3,500, can fly for 15 minutes before it needs a change of battery — hence why he keeps five extras on hand.
Owens talked excitedly about his experiences using the drone. He left a position at the Steamboat Springs Police Department at the start of the year, mostly to join the Sheriff’s Office drone program.
“Once you start using them, you can see where they can be used to do almost anything,” he said.
During a river rescue three weeks ago, Owens flew his drone over the Yampa River to search for a missing woman who fell out of her kayak. It allowed him to stream the camera footage from the drone to the iPad attached to the remote.
He showed some of the video, which offered a crisp, bird’s-eye view of the water and riverbanks. The drone is self-stabilizing, and the camera auto-adjusts to keep the footage steady.
“If you see something, you can go down and look at it,” he said, just as the footage neared the ground and investigated a strange object in the water that turned out to be a TV satellite, a casualty from a recent flood.
The missing woman was eventually found safe at her home, but law enforcement agencies in other counties have found similar success with their own drone programs.
In November, deputies in Grand County deployed a drone with a thermal camera to search for a fugitive who fled authorities after burglarizing a business in Steamboat.
“It ended up finding him hiding under a bridge,” Owens said.
Use in wildfires
As wildfires in Colorado have grown larger and more expensive, local officials have been looking for cheaper, more effective fire suppression strategies.
Two weeks ago, Dave “Mo” DeMorat, the county’s emergency management director, gained approval from the Routt County Board of Commissioners to purchase a $3,500 drone with a thermal camera to detect small fires and hot spots before they grow into blazes.
Looking back on the Murphy Fire last September, which burned about 800 acres near Hayden, DeMorat said a drone could have reduced the cost of suppression efforts and the overall size of the blaze.
As he explained, a wildfire can reignite even after firefighters have contained an area, and embers from one fire can travel long distances to spark flames elsewhere. Firefighters battling the Murphy Fire thought they had contained it by the first night.
“But by 11 a.m., a few of those hot spots picked up and that fire was active again,” DeMorat said. “If we had a thermal camera, we may have been more effective about finding those hot spots.”
DeMorat hopes the new drone will cut costs to the county’s fire suppression budget, including reimbursements to neighboring firefighting agencies, which totaled more than $100,000 last year.
He looked to Grand County as a success story. The sheriff’s office there spent nearly $40,000 on a drone that has been used in similar fire mitigation efforts, as well as in rescue missions.
“We’re just scratching the surface on the capabilities,” DeMorat said of drone technology.
Concerns over drone use and regulation
While drones have proven advantageous in many areas, the technology is not without controversy.
The way Owens described it, drones are such a recent development, officials are still determining how to manage it, let alone understand its implications. The situation seems similar to the early days of the internet, when governments had yet to enact policies regulating online content or usage.
In previous summers, hobbyist drone pilots, flying above wildfire zones, have disrupted fire suppression efforts by preventing planes from flying into the airspace to drop water or survey the flames. During time-sensitive operations, when fires can grow exponentially in a matter of minutes, these delays can be detrimental. To combat a rise in such incidents, Colorado legislators passed a bill earlier this month that enables officials to patrol the airspace above wildfires to keep out citizen drones.
The use of drones for law enforcement investigations has posed surveillance concerns, specifically with reference to unreasonable searches, as protected under the Fourth Amendment.
According to a report from the American Civil Liberties Union, the rise in drone usage among police departments has outpaced privacy laws. In the report, the legal rights group recommends regulations to protect the public, which include limiting drone use to specific crimes and requiring a warrant for instances in which a drone would intrude on reasonable privacy expectations.
“Rules must be put in place to ensure that we can enjoy the benefits of this new technology without bringing us closer to a ‘surveillance society’ in which our every move is monitored, tracked, recorded, and scrutinized by the authorities,” the American Civil Liberties Union said in a news release.
Arsenault said the Sheriff’s Office has been cognizant of those concerns and enacted policies to avoid potential issues. He expects the Routt County Sheriff’s Office to use its two drones primarily for rescue missions, not criminal investigations.
Current federal law allows agencies to observe properties without a warrant if they do so in publicly navigable airspace. Further encroachments on people’s privacy require a greater degree of justification.
“From our perspective, if we are going to look in someone’s window, it is because they are a threat themselves or to other people,” Daschle said.
Even when Owens was surveying the Yampa River during the rescue mission, he was careful not to record adjacent neighborhoods and people’s private space.
For now, Owens and others are waiting to see how judges and juries treat surveillance evidence from drones in the courts.
“I don’t get paid enough to make those final decisions,” he said.
In the future, drones will likely play an increasingly larger role for agencies in Routt County, as well as for organizations and businesses across the world. With such far-reaching potential, it will be up to regulators and lawmakers to determine just how much the technology soars.
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