Inside Seattle Police’s Drone Program

The unmanned aerial vehicles have yet to take off, but here’s what you need to know when they do.

By Karen Taylor Quinn December 19, 2012 Published in the January 2013 issue of Seattle Met

The Seattle Police Department kicked up a public safety–versus–privacy storm last fall when it announced its new yet-to-launch drone program. But before we get to that: What exactly will be flying overhead?


The Lingo
You know them as drones, but technically they’re called unmanned aerial vehicles, or UAVs. The devices, which can have a wingspan ranging from a foot to more than 25 feet, are controlled remotely by a helmsman on the ground. Some are weaponized and others, like those used by SPD, are only equipped with cameras. 


Key Date: February 17, 2012
The Department of Homeland Security allocated nearly $500 million to 31 “high-threat, high-density urban areas” nationwide to assist in “building an enhanced and sustainable capacity to prevent, protect against, mitigate, respond to, and recover from acts of terrorism.” SPD used 100 percent of its funds to purchase two Draganflyer X6 drones and camera equipment. 


The Specs
$41,000 cost per drone
4.5 pounds total weight
30 miles per hour top speed
8,000 feet maximum altitude
20 minutes maximum flight time
2 cameras a high-res-video and still-shot camera and a thermal imaging device


A Brief History of Drones
1917 – U.S. military begins testing first drones; performance is erratic
1944 – Nazis launch the V-1 drone, which flies 400 miles per hour and carries a 2,000-pound warhead
1960s – U.S. military begins using drones for surveillance, particularly over Southeast Asia
1990s – Private companies develop drones for commercial photography use
2001 – First-ever U.S. military drone strike launched, in Afghanistan
2007 – FAA bans drones for commercial use
2011 – FAA authorizes drone use for public safety
2012 – U.S. employs 7,500 weaponized drones, up from 50 in 2001

Other Police Using Drones


Good Idea?

SPD argues that drones will put Seattle at the forefront of public safety, helping with search and rescue; disaster response; traffic mitigation; and finding missing children, fugitives, and wandering elderly people. In October the department released an operations manual with strict privacy policies, including assurances that “onboard cameras will be turned so as to be facing away from occupied structures.”

The department’s UAV guidelines also allow for unspecified “other requested uses,” which has prompted the ACLU to push for a warrant for every drone flight, with exceptions for disaster response. And then there’s this: When news broke of the program in spring 2012, even the Seattle City Council knew nothing about it, raising questions about why SPD was being so secretive.


First Drone-Assisted Arrest in the U.S.
Wielding high-powered rifles, Rodney Brossart, of Lakota, North Dakota, engaged local police in a 16-hour standoff on April 9, 2012, after taking six cows that wandered into his yard and refusing to give them back. A SWAT team pinpointed his location with a drone and infrared camera, then ambushed, tasered, and arrested him. The cows were returned to their rightful owners.


Published: January 2013

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