The Palm Beach County Sheriff’s Office could soon be flying unmanned aircraft in search-and-rescue missions, drug-trafficking investigations and disaster assessments.
This year’s state budget includes a $1 million appropriation to start a drone pilot program at the Sheriff’s Office.
The agency declined to discuss the program or the funding request because it is considered “operational in nature,” said Teri Barbera, a sheriff’s spokeswoman.
The state budget describes the department’s unmanned aircraft program as geared toward “search and rescue, disaster assessment and assistance, interdiction of drug and human-trafficking activities and situational awareness of a person whose life is in imminent danger.”
Operational activities will be limited to “navigable bodies of water within 25 miles” of the Sheriff Office’s jurisdiction, according to the budget.
“It’s an opportunity in regards to what we saw with the two kids who went missing in the Jupiter Inlet,” said Todd Bonlarron, Palm Beach County‘s director of legislative affairs. “This is the type of thing law enforcement could get up quickly in the air for search and rescue.”
Perry Cohen and Austin Stephanos, both 14, went missing after a July 24 fishing trip and were never found.
The U.S. Coast Guard does not use drones in search-and-rescue missions, said Coast Guard Petty Officer Mark Barney, who is based in Miami.
In a funding request filed with state lawmakers, Sheriff’s officials wrote the state funds would be used to purchase a “marine-based fixed-wing” unmanned aircraft with hardware and software to “military-grade specification.” The unmanned aircraft would supplement aviation units in searching for missing boaters off 47 miles of coastline and 750 square miles of Lake Okeechobee, along with identifying illegal activity at the coastal border, according to the request.
The Palm Beach County Sheriff’s Office received authorization in December for “training, familiarization and proficiency development,” according to the Federal Aviation Administration.
Once the Sheriff’s Office demonstrates proficiency, it can apply for approval to use drones in operational missions, said Les Dorr, an FAA spokesman.
Unmanned aircraft can be more cost-effective than helicopters and have a multitude of advantages in law enforcement, particularly in minimizing risk in armed standoffs and other emergencies, said Brent Terwilliger, chair of Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University’s master’s program in unmanned systems.
Smaller drones can be carried on the back of a squad car and launched in the field. Flight times can vary from about 20 minutes for smaller, multirotor platforms to more than 24 hours for some fixed-wing unmanned aircraft, he said.
The fastest unmanned aircraft available to law enforcement can travel at speeds in excess of 100 mph, Terwilliger said.
It costs about $800 an hour to operate the Sheriff Office’s manned airship, and it’s possible an unmanned aircraft could produce significant cost savings, according to the department’s request.
In 2013, state lawmakers passed the “Freedom from Unwarranted Surveillance Act,” which places restrictions on how law enforcement can use drones. They can be used if swift action is needed to prevent imminent danger to life or serious property damage; to search for a missing person; to counter a high risk of a terrorist attack; to forestall the imminent escape of a suspect or the destruction of evidence; or if a warrant is obtained.
The American Civil Liberties Union has documented uses of drones by law enforcement it considers inappropriate, such as monitoring “black lives matter” protests and mosques, said Chad A. Marlow, the organization’s advocacy and policy counsel.
In general, the organization approves of the use of drones by law enforcement if a warrant is obtained or if there is an emergency, such as a forest fire or a hostage situation, Marlow said.
He questioned why the Palm Beach County Sheriff’s Office is not being more forthcoming about the program and expressed skepticism that drones will be restricted to use over water in perpetuity.
“It’s extremely troubling,” Marlow said. “The public has an absolute right to know and understand what its law enforcement is doing and how the public is being surveilled.”
Other agencies have written policies on drone use that the public can read, he said.
Eighty-seven public safety organizations across the country have received approval for training or operational use of drones, according to the FAA, which did not provide the approval list.
At least three law enforcement agencies in Florida have received approval from the FAA to operate drones, according to the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a civil liberties organization that has been tracking drone use by law enforcement.