No flight of fancy
“When you leave,” a joking voice says in the distance to a reporter, “we’ll put the missiles and hand grenades on it.”
On a quiet, windswept spring afternoon off 32 Road, Mesa County Sheriff’s Department quartermaster Ben Miller was having fun in his element: demonstrating the latest application for the agency’s fixed-wing unmanned Falcon airplane.
The shows are old hat for Miller these days. He appeared recently in National Geographic, right around when he was heard on National Public Radio and after his mug graced a February cover story in Time Magazine, juxtaposed to a photo illustration showing a military-style Predator drone flying over a suburban home.
Miller and company are fond of jokes about things like mounting the 9-pound, carbon fiber and aluminum drone with a .12 gauge shotgun or Taser.
“The challenge for us,” Miller says, “is that story (the Time illustration showing the Predator) and this story being presented as one and the same. It’s just not.”
Nearly four years after the Sheriff’s Department started use of unmanned aircraft, and amid rising concerns about privacy, the Sheriff’s Department this past Wednesday adopted and released formal policies for use of its unmanned aircraft, broadly addressing warrant requirements and Fourth Amendment protections.
Sheriff’s officials also are up to new things with the Falcon airplane, a younger cousin to the Draganflyer XG helicopter first deployed in 2009 when the Sheriff’s Department broke ground as being among the first to use the systems.
Miller’s “story” these days is trash and gravel pits.
Agencies like the U.S. Bureau of Land Management and Mesa County’s landfill operation are interested in the Falcon’s ability to photograph for survey purposes, which holds potential for thousands of dollars of taxpayer savings.
On March 14, Miller was demonstrating just that. Nearly 1,000 still photos focused on a BLM gravel pit — adjacent to the Grand Junction Trap Club at 116 32 Road — were snapped within a roughly one-hour period. The high-resolution images captured tiny details of a reporter’s shirt.
“That’s what 300 feet off the ground looks like,” Miller said.
The potential has people like Mesa County Public Works Staff Surveyor Frank Kochevar interested in training to fly the system himself. Needing an aerial map last fall for a realignment project on 45.5 Road, also known as the De Beque Cutoff, Mesa County paid $30,000 for a manned aerial flight to collect photos, Kochevar said.
He figures he can do it at a third of the cost using Miller’s Falcon.
“Plus we can do it whenever we want,” Kochevar said.
Kochevar said the county usually has a six-week waiting period for aerial mapping contractors to process data and produce images. Miller talks about a 24-to 48-hour turnaround.
Cameron Garcia, director of the Mesa County landfill, said he budgets $10,000 annually for manned flights to photograph the roughly square-mile property, which helps them document trash distribution. This spring, they called upon Miller and got a better, cheaper product, he said.
“You can see a trash bag caught up in a bush or something,” Garcia said, pointing to a white, pin-sized dot on an office map. “The image quality is just better.”
Search or not?
Miller said the department is keen to not be “an agency creating bad case law” by perceived abuses.
“If we’re below 400 feet and we’re going to fly over your backyard, there is numerous case law that directs us to say we’ll have to get a warrant,” he said. “That’s considered a search.”
Miller is quick to highlight past uses, which were primarily search-and-rescue and crime-scene mapping missions. Flight logs, which were provided by the agency, tell a similar story with numerous training missions for both the Draganflyer and Falcon.
“In four years, I haven’t had anybody walk into my office and say, ‘We’re looking for a guy and we think he’s in this neighborhood,” Miller said.
The policies adopted Wednesday take a stab at the issue.
“Any flight that has been deemed a search under the Fourth Amendment and does not fall under court approved exceptions will require a warrant,” reads the policy. “A pilot will not conduct a mission deemed a search under the Fourth Amendment without possession of a signed warrant or personal knowledge that one has been issued.”
Denise Maes, public policy director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Colorado, said she was eager to review Mesa County’s policies but skeptical.
“The laws protecting privacy have not kept up the technological ability to invade it,” she said. “Frankly, I think there’s a problem if those drafting policies are drafting the same policies they are going to have to follow.”