Portable Micro Drone!
About a hundred years ago, when I was a cop with a large department in Southern California, we were suffering with the pandemic scourge of methamphetamine use. The precursors were easy to get, it was easy to cook, easy to step on and there was certainly no lack of a customer base in my city and the county. A great deal of the production and distribution chain was the realm of organized outlaw biker criminal enterprises. Most had large compounds in the backcountry of the county making it hugely difficult for surveillance and intelligence gathering.
A taskforce was put together to combat the cretins and stop the flow of this highly destructive drug. Most of the alphabet soup of federal agencies were involved, along with practically every one of the 18 various municipal, county and state jurisdictions in our area.
Once the difficult and dangerous job our undercover officers, deputies and agents had gathering actionable information, it was handed off to the tactical guys. We had to come up with a plan to raid the locations safely and allow other taskforce members to gather evidence and arrest the suspects.
But, how do you do that when the bikers’ cooking locations were virtual fortresses deep in the backcountry, surrounded by forest, booby-trapped and well protected from assault? We didn’t have the luxury of satellite imagery and our aircrafts were small and easily sighted due to altitude limitations.
Although the Datron Scout looks like a radio-controlled consumer toy at first glance, it’s
remarkably sophisticated. It offers FLIR and photo surveillance capabilities, among other features.
Call The Navy
The US Navy had a large presence in our area, and one of our guys suggested a fly over by a Navy F14 equipped with a photoreconnaissance package. “Oh yeah, that’s gonna be simple … should be a walk in the park … maybe we can do it this afternoon.” But, it was the best we could come up with at the time.
Our taskforce had a Deputy Assistant US Attorney and a Deputy District Attorney from the County attached. We used them for vertical prosecution. The Assistant US Attorney was tasked with securing federal search warrants, and it just so happened the County Deputy DA was a Naval Reserve JAG Officer who navigated the labyrinth of Navy red tape all the way up to the Pentagon, to get the fly over approved and tasked. Only one problem: it took 3 months.
Early one afternoon a Navy F14 blasted through the sky over the compound at 5,000′ and just barely under the speed of sound. The photos were unbelievable. We could see all the buildings, heavy traffic areas, all the doors and windows, and the resolution was so good we could make out tire tracks, see the choke points and the location of their established ambush sites to prevent infiltration.
It took over 50 tactical officers to accomplish a safe takedown and to secure the site, but it was well worth it. Over 200 pounds of finished product, enough raw materials for another 500 pounds were seized, and 15 really bad guys were arrested. Not a single LE officer received so much as a hangnail or stubbed toe from the operation.
When you take into account the man-hours involved in just getting the intel fly-over approved and the actual flight itself, we had to be way over the million dollar mark.
The Scout is packed in a hard-shell case, with accessories and the controller screen.
Then And Now
To get that kind of op approved these days would be a feat worthy of a “made-for-TV miniseries.” But now, we have other options — and they’re a whole lot less expensive.
The slowdown in the Middle East conflicts (a.k.a. wars) has a technology trickle-down effect. Defense contractors who once had the endless tax dollars of a ready, willing and able military customer are looking for other avenues to sell their wares. One standout in this field and high-tech voice or data communications is the American company, Datron World Communications.
Datron is based in Vista, Calif, just a few miles north of San Diego. They make law enforcement and military radio systems and now, the Datron Scout. It’s a drone system. Okay, it’s not a billion dollar Global Hawk or even a multi-million dollar Predator like the ones flown for the CIA and military; most notable for their ability to locate terrorists and turn them into pink mist. Homeland Security currently deploys a weaponless Predator UAV along the border to aid in reducing illegal entry and drug smuggling. The Datron Scout is a man-portable micro drone. It was designed to be deployed at the military squad level for force protection, and to seek out threats just over the next hill or a mile or so around their perimeter.
Ease Of Use
I hate the phrase thrown around by some, “even a cop can use it.” I much prefer “even a politician can use it” — but no one I know would trust them enough to let them. However, this drone is so easily operated, you’d still be amazed.
It comes packed in a hard polymer case and setup is fast. You remove the body of the aircraft from the case along with the four nacelles and props, plug in the Intelligent Lithium Polymer Smart Battery and take out the tablet computer screen. If you rush, the whole process takes about 5 minutes — if you don’t rush it takes about 3.
Once you activate the aircraft with the tablet, you simply trace the route you want it to fly with a stylus and choose an altitude from a Google Earth-like map screen. Now, hit the launch button on the tablet and the little bird almost silently lifts off, flies the route at the designated altitude, returns to the take-off point and lands. During the flight, it transmits streaming video back to you. It can be instructed to hover at any point if something of special interest is observed and then told to continue. It’s almost like the pause button on your home DVR.
We know this because we actually got to watch one flown at FMG’s “World Headquarters” in San Diego. Sure enough, the factory rep had it going in about 3 minutes, and it did exactly what it was advertised to do. It’s amazingly stable, and just plain fun to watch at work!
The Scout Drone can be easily maneuvered around buildings, cars and trees,
making it just right for covert operations.
There have been a few incidents around the country and overseas where drones — none involving the Datron Scout — have developed a mind of their own and went off their planned route. Mostly, these incidents have been caused by communications problems between the aircraft and the controller. Datron solved this issue by inserting a program in the aircraft itself. If the signal between the aircraft and its controller is lost or compromised, the imbedded program takes over and flies the aircraft back to the point of origin and lands.
The Scout is not a C-19 heavy lift cargo aircraft, but they still use the term payload when talking about the different widgets you can attach to the aircraft body. The Scout comes with a standard 5-megapixel, daylight camera. You can add to that with a 10X-zoom video camera, or FLIR 320 or 640 thermal imagers. Custom payload systems can be developed with the assistance of Datron.
With a 20-minute runtime, the electric power pack can be quickly changed at landing,
and the Scout can be re-launched immediately if needed. Range is about 1.86 miles
from the controller, and the Scout can operate up to 1,640′ in altitude from the launch point.
The Scout can fly missions up to 1.86 miles from the controller or up to 20 minutes on one battery charge, depending on the payload and wind. A second battery is included and can be hot swapped once the aircraft has landed — that takes about 30 seconds. The Scout is 31.5×31.5″ wide and 7.87″ tall when fully assembled. It weighs 2.6 pounds. It’s capable of flying in a 31 mph wind at a maximum altitude of 1,640′, from the altitude at which it’s launched.
What does a moderately well equipped helicopter with a law enforcement package cost these days? Depending on the brand of aircraft,it’s easily on the tall side of $2 million. That doesn’t take into account the astronomical cost of fuel and maintenance of the aircraft, or the cost of training and paying pilots. Even considering your department could afford the cost, it may not be an appropriate platform for covert surveillance as part of an investigation or the exigent circumstance of a SWAT incident.
Helicopters are easy to see and they make a bunch of racket. They’re big and usually carry at least two cops. Losing the cops or the helicopter to a well-placed or extremely lucky shot just isn’t an option. Consider the Datron Scout can be purchased for around $90K. That’s a cost easily justified, especially when federal grants become available if the need can be articulated.
The controller tablet offers the birds-eye view the Scout is beaming back,
and allows easy control of the drone.
The FAA is primarily concerned with the safe use of drones in the US. Carelessly deployed drones could literally crash your barbeque party or collide with other aircraft in already crowded skies. New rules about operating altitudes, failsafe measures and environments of use are expected very soon.
The biggest threat to severely limiting law enforcement use of drones comes from civil-liberty groups. They’re worried about what they see as a greater danger: the specter of massive surveillance.
Ryan Calo, director for privacy and robotics at the Stanford Law School’s Center for Internet and Society, said, “Any time you have a tool like that in the hands of law enforcement that makes it easier to do surveillance, they will do more of it.”
A senior policy analyst with the American Civil Liberties Union’s Speech, Privacy and Technology Project, Jay Stanley, says, “Drones raise the prospect of much more pervasive surveillance.” He continued, “We are not against them, absolutely. They can be valuable tools in certain kinds of operations. But what we don’t want to see is their pervasive use to watch over the American people.”
Court testing of the Fourth Amendment issues involving drones is in its infancy. Expect to see a great deal more challenges once the use of drones becomes more prevalent.
During my career, I’ve seen some really great laws lost as valuable tools, due to abuse. If we follow the Constitution and don’t get “too creative” with the use of drones, they could become one of the greatest surveillance tools we’ll possess since the invention of night vision devices.
For more info: (760) 597-1500, www.americancopmagazine.com/datron
By Dave Douglas
Photos by Joe Novelozo and Jade Molde
WEB BLAST EXTRA VIDEO
Portable micro drone in action. An exclusive look at the exciting Datron Scout.