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By Dave Boyce
Almanac Staff Writer
Plans are off for the purchase of a small drone aircraft that would have allowed Sheriff's Office deputies to peer down from the sky, night or day, during search-and-rescue operations or hostage incidents.
The proposed drone is a square spider-like thing with rotors at each corner.
As first reported in the Oakland Tribune, an uproar in Alameda County over a proposed drone purchase there led San Mateo County Sheriff Greg Munks to call off plans to request $70,000 from the Department of Homeland Security for the unmanned aircraft. "We saw that the (opinion) for the utilizing of drones domestically is not really settled, so we decided not to pursue it," Mr. Munks said. "We're just going to stand down."
If concerns about civil liberties and privacy can be satisfied and there is general acceptance of domestic use of the technology, the Sheriff's Office might take another look at it, he said. "There are too many unanswered questions, too much concern about how it would be used," he said. "It won't come back (as a priority purchase) unless we put it out there (and) I have no intention of putting it out there."
Had the Sheriff's Office made the drone a high priority item, the county Board of Supervisors would have had to approve the funding request and purchase, and it would have been discussed in public, Mr. Munks said.
Asked about the rules and policies around the use of a drone, Mr. Munks said he was reluctant to address hypothetical questions, but added that when not in use, a drone would be locked in a warehouse along with other specialized equipment, such as jet skis.
The drone would be available only to officers trained to use it, Mr. Munks said. A warrant from a judge would not be required for search-and-rescue incidents or in a situation involving a SWAT team, he said. Were the county to someday acquire a drone, it would be available to other jurisdictions through mutual-aid arrangements in the Bay Area.
The aircraft the Sheriff's Office had in mind -- the AirCover QuadRotor QR425s -- is a product from Aircover Integrated Solutions.
The spider-like drone has a rectangular capsule in the center and four legs -- one at each corner -- each fitted with a vertically oriented helicopter-like blade at the end. The center capsule is about eight inches by 10 inches, according to an image at the Aircover website.
It's battery powered and has a 25-minute flying time before a recharge is necessary.
The drone uses GPS coordinates to find its way and will "fly home" automatically. It can "perch" for surveillance, out of sight and all but silently, according to the product description at Aircover. It's options include an infrared camera for night vision and live streaming high-definition encrypted video.
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The Sheriff's Office made the request through the Bay Area Urban Area Security Initiative, a quasi-governmental organization that meets monthly with a mission that "sustains and improves regional capacity to prevent, protect against, respond to, and recover from terrorist incidents and catastrophic events." The group includes representatives from San Francisco, Oakland, San Jose and 12 Bay Area counties.
The Bay Area UASI receives funding from the DHS and Federal Emergency Management Agency, said spokesman Francis Zamora. An advisory group includes the Northern California Regional Intelligence Center (NCRIC)/Fusion Center, one of 78 regional centers in the country for the "receipt, analysis, gathering, and sharing of threat-related information between the federal government and state, local, tribal, territorial and private sector partners," as a DHS description puts it.
The fusion centers are "are uniquely situated to empower front-line law enforcement, public safety, fire service, emergency response, public health, critical infrastructure protection, and private sector security personnel to understand local implications of national intelligence, thus enabling local officials to better protect their communities."