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The Drone That Time Forgot: Small Town's UAV Gathers Dust

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When the Gaston County Police Department purchased a "CyberBug" drone in 2006 from Cyber Defense Systems, Inc. it had hoped to use the 14-pound Unmanned Aerial Vehicle to assist with police work in the small North Carolina town. The CyberBug, which comes equipped with low-light infrared cameras and is guided by a GPS system, and is capable of taking pictures and video from overhead up to 1300 feet high.

The police had intended to use the CyberBug for "routine surveillance, lost persons, tactical operations, open area drug eradication, and overhead crime scene photography," according to Assistant Chief Jeff Isenhour, as quoted in a press release from Cyber Defense Systems at the time.

CyberBugs have other potential uses as well -- and one incident attracted the attention of the ACLU. The police in La Plata Maryland in 2005 had acquired a CyberBug model and used it to monitor for potential "unruly behavior" during the 12th Annual Southern Maryland "Blessing of the Bikes" motorcycle convention, which attracted around 8,000 people.

Susan Goering, executive director of the ACLU of Maryland, said at the time that "the concern is, obviously, a privacy issue, but also that the constitutional right to assemble is being chilled."

But if the Gaston County PD planned to put its drone to any similar use, they were thwarted by a group called the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association (AOPA). The AOPA, upon learning that the police were piloting the drone without a license, alerted the FAA, who keeps tabs on domestic drone use. At first, according to an AOPA blog post, the FAA said it didn't have the authority to stop the police from flying the drone. But after some pressure, the FAA got the GCPD to stop flying the drone above 400 feet.

In late 2010, the FAA tightened its regulations on the use of UAVS by non-military agencies for safety reasons. This, according to the Gaston Gazette, left "the Gaston County P.D. wrangled in formal applications and procedural paperwork. Unable to secure the proper permit, the drone was eventually grounded and left collecting dust in a police storage facility."

"It'll just keep sitting there until we get permission," former Gaston County Police Chief William Farley said at the time. "I get sad just thinking about it."

Since the FAA has been reluctant to release records on who it has -- and hasn't -- authorized to fly drones domestically, it's tough to say if there are other -- or any -- drones rotting away in police storage. One group, the Electronic Frontier Foundation, is suing for the release of the records.

But this problem may be solved with the new, looser regulations set to be released this year, thanks to the expedited timeline mandated by the FAA Authorization Act passed by Congress last week. The legislation requires the FAA to expand the list of who can operate drones, and where and when they can be flown. "A government public safety agency" will be able to operate drones of a certain size as long as certain safety conditions are met. And the FAA is also now required "to safely accelerate the integration of civil unmanned aircraft systems into the national airspace system."

But, even if the Gaston PD can get authorized at this point, it's too late for the poor, outdated CyberBug. "It was tough dealing with all the permits," Assistant Police Chief J.D. Ramey said, the Gazette reports, "but now that it's been grounded for so long, the CyberBug is virtually obsolete."

"Compared to all the other unmanned aircraft out there, ours has really aged. If we'd want to ever do any real patrols, we'd have to upgrade to more advanced technology," he said.

The Gaston Police Department did not return TPM's request for comment.

h/t sUAS News.