Pubdate: Wed, 08 Feb 2006
Source: Charlotte Observer (NC)
Copyright: 2006 The Charlotte Observer
Author: Cleve R. Wootson Jr.
Bookmark: (Cannabis)


$30,000 Unmanned Aircraft To Be Used For Aerial Surveillance

Its makers say it is a crime-fighting tool for the 21st century. The 
Gaston County Police department says it's almost as good as having a 
helicopter at a fraction of the cost.

But the true test for Gaston County's unmanned aerial vehicle will 
come in a month, when officers put their $30,000 Cyberbug in the air 
for the first time.

County commissioners approved the unmanned aircraft last month. The 
funding comes from drug-asset forfeiture money, and police say the 
unmanned vehicle could become indispensable.

Assistant Police Chief Jeff Isenhour, who researched getting an 
unmanned vehicle for several months, said the Cyberbug will be 
equipped with a low-light and an infrared camera that can spot drug 
fields from over 100 yards in the air. It can help police keep large 
gatherings from getting out of hand, he said, and even find children 
lost in the woods.

The Cyberbug's makers tout that it can be stored in a police car's 
trunk and ready for action in less than five minutes. It coasts along 
at about 30 mph, depending on the wind. And Isenhour said the county 
police's aircraft will have batteries that can power it for up to two 
hours. One officer is headed to Florida in the next week for Cyberbug 
training. He will bring the Cyberbug back with him and then train 
about four other officers.

"For the price of a patrol car, you could probably buy two UAV's," 
said Cyber Defense Systems President Jim Alman. "When the officer has 
a situation, he already has the tools with him all the time. He has 
his laptop, he has his shotgun, he has his (Cyberbug)."

Far From Foolproof

Lt. Chris Becker, commander for homeland security and intelligence at 
the Charles County, Md., Sheriff's Office said he didn't have 
considerable objections when his office tested the Cyberbug, but his 
department didn't see a pressing need to buy one.His office monitored 
a gathering of motorcycle riders at the county fairgrounds using a 
UAV similar to the one Gaston County Police will get.

Becker said an unaffiliated group has been testing unmanned small 
aircraft and feeding results to the sheriff's department. Roger 
Kraus, a member of that group -- the Charles County homeland security 
alliance -- who says he helped plan the UAV's monitoring of the 
motorcycle event, said it's hard to define an agency's need for the device.

"You can't define those requirements -- why buy one? How often will 
you use it?" he said. Kraus said the device the alliance reviewed had 
some bugs. He said all vehicles become unstable when the wind blows 
hard, and that the Cyberbug sometimes had trouble transmitting its 
wireless signal. Still, he said, it has a place in law enforcement 
and his organization is trying to get a grant so the Charles County 
Sheriff's Office can use it.

True Test Yet To Come

At a county commissioners meeting in January, Police Chief Bill 
Farley took questions from commissioner Mickey Price, who worried 
that the plane was more toy than tool. It can be controlled by a 
video game-like joystick (or by an autopilot that flies the aircraft 
to preset points.)

Farley explained the potential benefits of the Cyberbug to 
commissioners and it was ultimately approved. But Isenhour said the 
true test will come when the Cyberbug takes to the skies.

"We've never had this capability before. We can say that we might use 
it three times a week. Or we might use it one time a day. It's really 
hard to say, because we haven't had the capability."

Cyberbug's Mission

The Gaston County Police says this is what they'll use the $30,000 UAV for:

* Finding people in wooded areas -- children, patients with 
Alzheimer's disease or fugitives.

* Aerial surveillance of hostage situations.

* Observing large crowds at community events.

* Observing traffic patterns, particularly at wreck scenes.

* Assessing hazardous material scenes, fires and floods.

* Doing surveillance of suspected drug activity and identifying 
locally cultivated marijuana.

* Recovering property abandoned or hidden on large tracts of land.

* Thermal rooftop inspections of public buildings.

* Observing training exercises.
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MAP posted-by: Beth Wehrman