Seattle police drafting drone policy

They plan to use mini-helicopter for searches, accidents

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SEATTLE — One of the first in the nation to receive permission from the federal government to start using drones, the Seattle Police Department is drafting a policy on how it will use the remote-control aerial vehicles.

Police have said they expect to use their drones in search and rescue operations and at accidents and unusual crime scenes.

Police were to consider public comments from a Thursday night public meeting at the Garfield Community Center before the policy is submitted to the City Council's Public Safety, Civil Rights and Technology Committee.

The Seattle department was among only a handful of law-enforcement agencies to win Federal Aviation Administration approval to use drones, with the majority going to academic, military and government organizations, according to the nonprofit Electronic Frontier Foundation.

Aerial drones can be as small as a hummingbird or as large as the lethal Predators and Reapers used by the military in the Middle East and Asia.

Seattle police plan to use the mini-helicopter Draganflyer XG made by the Draganfly Innovations company of Saskatoon, Canada.

It is operated with a hand-held controller and joysticks. It carries cameras that can take still pictures, videos and infrared shots. It is limited by a battery life of less than 10 minutes and an inability to carry more than 35 ounces — a little more than 2 pounds, police said.

The FAA has guidelines on how and when law-enforcement agencies can use drones. They cannot be flown at night or over crowds. The drones must be flown below 400 feet and must remain within eyesight of an operator as well as an observer at all times, according to the FAA.

The law enforcement use of drones prompted an American Civil Liberties Union review that found existing laws and policies are inadequate to safeguard citizen privacy.

City officials should take the lead in crafting strict and clear policies on what kind of information can be collected, said Doug Honig of the ACLU of Washington.