Drones have proven to be multi-functional resources -- whether they're deployed in the name of national security or gifted as amusing toys during the holiday season. And now, they're the latest members to join ranks with smaller police departments across the country to promote public safety.
Nearly 350 police agencies used drones in 2016, according to a study by New York's Bard College. That's nearly double the number as the year before. But there also appears to be a pattern in terms of their use. Half of the drones adopted by law enforcement are used in places with less than 50,000 people.
The reason? Drones are much more affordable for police departments strapped for cash.
"Small departments like mine can now afford to get aero imagery because we could never afford to buy or operate a plane or helicopter there."
Based on a few Google searches, high-tech drones equipped with infrared cameras can cost anywhere between $20,000 and $50,000. That's much less than the price tag of operating a helicopter, which can run well past $1 million.
So far, police drones have appeared to complement -- not replace -- the work of law enforcement officials. For example, in Barnstable, Massachusetts, police used a drone with infrared technology to locate a suspect hiding in a pond. By sensing the suspect's body heat, the drone was able to see what police officials couldn't.
And in Lake Zurich, Illinois, a suburb of Chicago, drones expedite the process of responding to car accidents -- thereby helping officials clear the scene much more quickly. In these types of scenarios, drones are deployed to take aerial photos of the scene. Those images are then stitched together to create 3D models that provide more clarity on the circumstances of the crash.
"That is going to help get to the bottom of proving a case, a case in which someone was at fault," said Steve Husak, police chief of Lake Zurich.
But as helpful as they may be in some instances, drones still have their drawbacks, including limited battery life and privacy concerns.
According to a Federal Aviation Administration rule, drone pilots must always have sight of their unmanned aircraft. That means they're unable to chase suspects on the run. And, only about a third of states, the Associated Press noted, require police officials to obtain a warrant before using drones in a criminal investigation.
But that wide-ranging freedom isn't stopping law enforcement officials from developing their own privacy standards. Police departments in Streetsboro, Ohio, and Los Angeles already crafted their own guidelines for drone usage.
"It's going to be a device that every time it's used, it will be documented for specific incidents," Streetsboro Police Chief Darin Powers said.
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