With Amazon planning to ship parcels via drones, and with the United Nations deploying unmanned aircraft in the Congo to keep tabs on rebels, we’ll soon see police and highway departments using drones for traffic monitoring and enforcement in the U.S., right? Wrong.

According to Ben Miller, Unmanned Aircraft Program Manager at the Mesa County, Colo., Sheriff’s Office, we have a ways to go before we’ll see drones helping to reduce traffic congestion. Miller recently testified before Congress about public safety uses for unmanned aircraft systems (UAS), on behalf of the Airborne Law Enforcement Association (ALEA). Go here to read Miller’s testimony. Miller is an 11-year veteran of the Mesa County Sheriff's Office.

Last month, the Federal Aviation Administration released a road map that sets the stage for law enforcement agencies, businesses, universities and hobbyists to fly remotely piloted aircraft, often called drones, inside the U.S., by as early as 2015.

Here are Ben Miller’s views:

GPN: Do you think in 2014-2015 we will see an expanded role for unmanned vehicles in traffic management?"  

Ben Miller: No, not until there is a clear rule, from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), as to their use. Ironically, drones used in traffic management could be saving the taxpayer large amounts of money today. Our program here in Mesa County has proven their utility, but only after a lengthy approval process through the FAA. Our program has proven that the use of small Unmanned Aircraft present significant improvements in cost and safety over manned aviation.

We can obtain needed photos of a traffic accident/crime scene, etc., and release the area back to the public within an hour. After that, we bring the photos back to the office and process a geometrically correct photo model that is less than a centimeter different from the real world. In that model, we can measure anything that is needed. We can also produce a wide-area visual capture of the scene. That presentation can show where items, property, cars, etc., were positioned at the scene of the crime or incident.

However, it took the FAA nine months to approve the use of a remote-control helicopter with a 2-pound payload for this very use. A 2-pound helicopter operates over areas cleared of the public below (traffic accidents) and aircraft above (we fly just 60 feet off the ground). Regarding the FAA approval process that took nine months? That happened back in 2009. Things are getting better.

GPN: Comparing use of unmanned aircraft in the public sector with individuals who fly them as a hobby—Do regulations and approvals differ between those two groups of users?
BM: We realize there is an expectation to fly all types of UAS in the national airspace. However, as a government agency ourselves, we realize that in situations that quickly grow outside our span of control, we eliminate the easy stuff first. In this case, that would be the rules/regulations to allow the "smalls" (aircraft that weigh less than 25 pounds) to fly. It's not rocket science and there would be a significant amount of common sense that could apply. Ironically, I can fly our very same equipment for fun as a hobbyist, generally, to my heart’s delight. The minute I put on my Mesa County Sheriff's Office hat, I'm subject to a large amount of regulation (nine months to get an approval to fly).

GPN: Are public agencies eager to use unmanned aircraft systems for traffic management and/or enforcement?

BM: There is wide public safety interest. We average 1.6 calls per day from government agencies across the U.S. concerning use of unmanned aircraft. The calls are coming from agencies of all shapes, sizes and types. Lately, the conversation has changed from "We're interested in using unmanned aircraft, to “We need help with approvals from the FAA." That's a good progression to see.

GPN: Thank you, Ben Miller, for your views.

This video shows an unmanned Draganflyer VTOL UAV helicopter being used for traffic investigation in a controlled airspace in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan.



To get connected and stay up-to-date with similar content from American City & County:
Like us on Facebook

Follow us on Twitter
Watch us on Youtube