By guest contributor Julie Wilson
The search for a drone used by a police department north of Houston continues continues after it crashed into a lake last week during a training exercise, reported the Houston Chronicle.
The Montgomery County Sheriff’s Office (MCSO) purchased the drone, closely resembling a mini-helicopter, through a federal grant in 2011.
Officials say the MCSO uses the drone for “emergency management, missing person recovery and operation overwatch.”
Spokesman Brady Fitzgerald describes “operation overwatch” as an activity where the drone can monitor events from above, including SWAT team activities. The device is equipped with a camera and an infrared scanning device.
Pressure from Civil Liberty organizations regarding privacy infringements, forced the MCSO to confirm the drone is not being used for surveillance.
However, the 50lb mini-chopper is capable of carrying a single-or-multi-shot 40mm grenade launcher, 25mm Grenade Launcher and even a 12-gauge shotgun, indicating it can not only be used for surveillance, but also as a tool for aggressively pursuing potential suspects.
Divers have still been unable to locate the ShadowHawk drone after it malfunctioned during an exercise and crashed into Lake Conroe on Friday.
Controversy surrounding drones remains persistent, although it hasn’t prevented law enforcement from increasing their reliance on aerial surveillance, whether it be manned or unmanned.
Austin Police drones and helicopters
In 2012, the Austin City Council approved an initiative that would allow the Austin Police Department (APD) to purchase a third helicopter. APD was allocated $4 million to purchase and outfit the new chopper, also known as Air One. It’s equipped with a 17-inch monitor linked to an infrared thermal imaging system.
The same year Air One was approved, a report by My Fox Austin confirmed APD planned to apply to fly unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) after the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) lifted certain restrictions. A UK Daily Mail report revealed Texas A&M as being one of 63 launch sites in the U.S., making it convenient for state and law enforcement to hold training sessions, and seek approval for police use.
Despite APD’s attempts to kick-start a drone program, documents obtained by Muckrock.com reveal the agency suddenly pulled the plug. Emails between law enforcement and city officials indicate some apprehension regarding expensive insurance costs, approximately $120,000, related to leasing a drone.
Although there was a great deal of interest among law enforcement officials,the proposal was eventually killed after City Legal failed to review it in time, even though APD had found ways within the department to fund the project.
A June 2012 email written by APD’s assistant director Alice Suter, and sent to Lieutenant Pat Cochran of the Austin Police technology department said, “I talked with Chief about this today and he is not supportive in us moving forward. Please notify the vendor that we will not be participating.”
Lt. Cochran replied, “Was it just the funding? I was just wondering so when I tell the vendors they don’t try to negotiate.”
Suter responded, “It wasn’t just the funding, Chief had other concerns which were related to the concept.”
This latest development is sure to be seen as a victory for those concerned about drones violating privacy and civil liberties. But as UAV technology continues to advance becoming more widespread, it seems unlikely interest from neither private or public sectors will diminish.
Julie Wilson is an investigative journalist for the Liberty Beat, Natural News and Infowars.com.