Drones Peering Through Your Window

May 25, 2019

The Albany Police take to the air with their first pair of UAVs

The City of Albany Police Department (APD) will soon be purchasing two drones, state of the art miniature flying machines piloted by a remote operator.  Of course this scares the crap out of me, as it would any reasonable person.  These two flying machines, and the department will be getting more of them as time goes on, confer a fantastic new level of power and potential for surveillance by the police that simply has never existed before.

Should the police have these powers? I’m afraid that question is meaningless, the technology has been developed and is now widely available, so it is inevitable that the APD looks for opportunities to acquire it and use it.  In fact it is hard to think of any reason why the police should not have access to this new technology that can make their work safer and more efficient as long as it is available and being used elsewhere.  More to the point which is on everybody’s minds, will this new technology be misused by the police?

The Elios 2 Indoor Inspection Drone The Elios 2 Indoor Inspection Drone

The APD is not the first police agency in the area to purchase drones, the Albany County Sheriff’s recently acquired them as have the police in the adjoining suburban municipality of Colonie, and of course the NY State Troopers have had them for some time.  The APD has requested use of drones from these neighboring police entities during some recent crisis operations in Albany, but naturally these requests take time to fulfill and conflict with other requests.  For no other reason, the APD does not want to be left without the soon to be standard tech tools that other police agencies already have.

Earlier this month I attended a presentation put on by the APD at 200 South Pearl Street, the second public meeting about the acquisition and use of the drones.  Like the first presentation which was uptown at the College of Saint Rose a month or so back, it was poorly attended, maybe fifteen people.  About half the attendees at this South End meeting were citizen members of the Albany Community Police Advisory Committee (ACPAC) which for the past decade has acted as a liaison between the APD and the public.

We had four officers of the APD sitting at a table in front of us. The very personable Albany chief of police Eric Hawkins, who took the job last September, presided over the meeting.  With him was assistant chief Ed Donahue. Answering most of our questions was detective Scott Gottesman, a 26 year veteran of the APD with hard experience with the Narcotics Division and SWAT.  He will be the principle officer in charge of the drone operations, with him was younger but experienced officer Ryan Romagnano whom detective Gottesman indicated would eventually take charge of the program.

Left To Right, Detective Scott Gottesman, Officer Ryan Romagno, Chief Eric Hawkins and Assistant Chief Ed Donahue at 200 South Pearl Street. Left To Right, Detective Scott Gottesman, Officer Ryan Romagno, Chief Eric Hawkins and Assistant Chief Ed Donahue at 200 South Pearl Street.

This was a sparse crowd in attendance but our questions, while respectful, were probing, looking for straight answers about how these machines would be used and how they could intrude on our Constitutional protection from search and surveillance. How would information gathered by the drones to be used, what are the guidelines, how available will that information be, how long will that information be stored?  Who will determine what information the drones gather has “evidentiary value”?

That phrase “evidentiary value” and the word “observation” were used by the cops as substitutes for “surveillance” which was treated like a dirty word (as do the distributors for the machines.)  The S word apparently is too strong an indicator of police control of citizens with a strong whiff of Fascism and oppression.  When I accidentally slipped and used the word while making a comment, both the officers and the members of ACPAC present immediately piled up on me, reminding me that’s a four letter word we don’t use around here.

The guys from the APD wanted us to understand that it is not their intention to use these drones to watch us in our backyards or through our windows or to follow us around while we go about our daily lives. “Not on our watch,” Detective Gottesman told us, while admitting that there was a danger of what he called “mission creep.”  But really, if past histories of the adoption of new technologies is an indication, it’s hard to see how wider use of these drones by the police can be prevented from happening.

On Site Ad for The Elios 2 On Site Ad for The Elios 2

So here’s the scoop: the APD hasn’t purchased the drones yet.  The money to purchase has arrived, a grant from the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) which is always interested in upgrading and militarizing police departments.  The amount of the grant is $50,500, which is enough to purchase the two drones with some leftover. For the rest of the APD drone handling program there are a variety of funding sources from the State, police and fire foundations, and of course City taxpayers. 

Actually, the APD is still getting quotes for the drones, looking for the best prices.  They have plenty of time to shop because it turns out that police agencies have to get a series of approvals before they are allowed to fly these machines in public airspace. As of this month they’ve gotten pretty much all of them, from  DHS and the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and from the State of New York, all except permission to fly outdoors from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) which they expect soon, but considering the condition of federal agencies under the current Executive Branch who knows how long that will take.

These two Unmanned Aerial Vehicles that the APD plans to purchase, usually called UAVs, are two different models with different functions.  The Flyability Elios 2 is an indoor platform, which means it is designed to maneuver inside buildings. Since the Elios 2 is not supposed to be used for outdoor flight the APD does not have to get permission from the FAA to operate it, as soon as they get the Elios 2 they can start using it.

Elios 2 Colliding With A Wal l. . . Elios 2 Colliding With A Wall…

To my eyes it’s a scary looking thing, a beast that would give me a heart attack if I saw it hovering outside one of my windows, or hovering over my bed in the middle of the night shining a spotlight on me. It’s not very big, about 16 inches across. It is surrounded by a geodesic spherical cage said to be “retractable,” which I suppose means it can be collapsed and folded for easy carrying. This surrounding sphere is flexible, when the machine crashes into a wall the cage absorbs the impact and then snaps back into shape.  In a crash test video that I saw, the machine literally bounced off the wall undamaged and continued flying. 

…Springs Back Into Shape and Continues Flying. …Springs Back Into Shape and Continues Flying.

The Elios 2 carries two video cameras side by side right up front, a 4k daylight camera and a thermal imaging camera that sees heat, that is, anything alive or burning.  The cameras are high resolution, up to .18 mm/px, and can swivel 90 degrees in any direction.  There is a 10,000 lumen spotlight next to the cameras, which is pretty intense compared to a typical household lightbulb which is about 1600 lumens.  It occurs to me that this spotlight could be used to temporarily blind someone hiding in a dark place.

An interesting detail is that the Elios 2 does not use GPS to orient itself, mostly because this drone will be going into places where GPS signals can’t penetrate.  Instead it has no less than seven stability sensors to keep it navigating properly.  I’d like to know more about how this stabilizing technology works, presumably these sensors are both electronic and mechanical.

This indoor UAV can go places where a human can’t go, or does not want to go.  It can travel down an air shaft, it can be sent into a burning building about to collapse, it can go where a band of desperate criminals with guns are holed up.  By sending this machine into a dangerous place no lives are risked, the way much lesser of two evils being that the taxpayers will be out a pile if it gets damaged.  That’s another use for that flexible cage surrounding it, if someone smacks it with a bat the UAV will likely bounce away undamaged and continue observing. 

DJI Matrice 210 Drone DJI Matrice 210 Drone

The other drone the APD wants to purchase is the Matrice 210 (or M210 as the supplier calls it), that’s the outdoor flyer they have to get FAA permission to operate. It is about 35 inches wide when flying and weighs about 10 pounds.  It can be folded up, the propellers easily removed, and the whole thing placed in a carrying case. It takes just a few minutes to assemble from the case.

This UAV is a serious flying machine that is water resistant and can maneuver in winds up to 70 mph, or so we were told.  It can stay aloft in cold down to -4 F and in heat up to 113 F.  It looks like a standard quadracopter, the 17 inch long propellers are what gives it stability in high winds. We were told it attains a maximum of 400 feet from the ground, it wasn’t made clear at the presentation if that was capability or FAA regulations.

The M210 is the machine that has the most potential for misuse as surveillance. It’s not hard to imagine this UAV cruising over the City peering into backyards and following around citizens that look “suspicious” to the drone operator.  All the streaming video is of course recorded, potentially these recordings can be studied and used by anyone who has access to them.

Ray Moran Of ACPAC starts The Meeting, Chief Hawkins And Officer Romagnano Listen Ray Moran Of ACPAC starts The Meeting, Chief Hawkins And Officer Romagnano Listen

Both of these machines are powered by batteries, according to a reviewer the M120 can stay aloft for about 38 minutes, the APD guys told us the Elios 2 was good for 23 minutes of flight.  Ray Moran of ACPAC told us the most common question he got from people was, “If they’re spending so much money how come they don’t stay up in the air longer?”  I happened to know that’s because of the current limits of battery technology.  The batteries on the machines weigh about two pounds, greater capacity to hold a charge would mean the size of the batteries would balloon so much the machines couldn’t fly. 

The Wife grew up with a relative who built and flew model airplanes that used kerosene or alcohol as fuel, I asked her how long those machines could stay aloft.  As best as she could recall, the most any of them could fly was about ten minutes, while the faster racers were good for no more than three minutes.  Again, weight considerations limited the amount of fuel. So the switch to electric batteries is actually a big increase in capability. 

The M210 can carry a small payload, presumably for accessories that the police can purchase, but what else?  In answer to a direct question, the officers informed us that no, the drones will not be weaponized, they will not carry guns or drop bombs. These UAVs will NOT be shooting missiles at wedding parties in the South End like they do in Afghanistan because, you never know, we might be terrorists. At least not yet, and not with these two drones.

Military Drone Firing a Missile Military Drone Firing a Missile

The only thing that prevents misuse of drone observation by the operators and archivers of the video, as we found out, is the good intentions of the police officers, and the only oversight of the APD’s use of the UAVs is the citizens, particularly ACPAC. The certifications from the federal government and also of the grant to purchase the drones are dependent upon the APD following strict guidelines for respecting Fourth Amendment rights against unreasonable search and seizure.  In order to conduct visual investigation of private property the drone operators need to either have a warrant from a court or written permission from the property owner.  

In addition, Chief Hawkins told us, “We are going to have strict procedures that are unique to the City of Albany.”  This is very much a groundbreaking technological challenge to the Bill of Rights, the police will have to be willing to stay inside the law and not abuse these new powers.  “We’re doing what we can to put these restraints in place,” the chief added.

This is all very well and good, the management of the APD has been reasonably trustworthy and quite responsive to the citizens for the past decade.  But as attendee Jacqui Williams pointed out, how can we be sure such promises of restraint, of scrupulously staying within legal limits, will be followed in the future?  We citizens, she pointed out, have developed relationships and understandings with law enforcement in the past, but every five years or so the management personnel change and we all have to start over again building trust.

Jacqui Williams Educating Kids Recently About American History Jacqui Williams Educating Kids Recently About American History

The officers had no real answer to that.  Like with any government agents, either elected or appointed, the only effective restraint on excesses of power has always been vigilance by the citizenry. In a sense all police officers are politicians, certainly the chief of police is.  Like all politicians the police officers are interested in increasing the scope of their power, it is the willingness of citizens to watch and judge the actions of the public servants that prevents excess of power.

But will citizen watchfulness or an oversight panel of some sort actually prevent “mission creep” with the use of these UAVs? Is wider use of drones for general surveillance inevitable?  Consider the adoption of video cameras in public spaces starting around 20 years ago.  At first it was a contentious issue, but now security cameras are everywhere and no one complains about their placement or use. 

So as drones become cheaper and more technologically advanced we will see police and fire departments routinely using a whole fleet of them with differing functions. So what happens when a drone is peering into the yard of a property that a court has given the operators permission to observe, and on the way over it happens to video an illegal act in an adjoining yard that is outside the warrant?  Will that constitute “just cause” for the police to conduct an on the spot raid, which the federal courts seem to think does not violate the Fourth Amendment? 

Indoor Drone Research Center Obstacle Course At SUNY Albany, College Courses On Drones Are Becoming Standard Indoor Drone Research Center Obstacle Course At SUNY Albany, College Courses On Drones Are Becoming Standard

That brings up the wider issue with this technology, it is already available to the general public and will become more widely used.  As the officers at the meeting pointed out, as public servants they are governed by legal restraints, so it is more likely that private owners of drones will try to peer through your window. In answer to my question, such behaviors would be covered by the same laws that cover peeping toms and would be prosecuted as such by the police.

Eventually drones will become ubiquitous like security cameras, flying all over the place despite FAA regulations.  Like with the spread of security cameras starting some 20 years ago, as people become accustomed to drones we will see the police using them much more widely and be less strict about limitations to their use for surveillance. General familiarity with this newfangled technology will eventually allow Constitutional protections against intrusion by these devices to erode and eventually be forgotten.

Whether we like it or not, in the near future drones will be fluttering back and forth over us and around us.  This will transform society in ways we can only guess at, we citizens being observed and recorded all the time by random strangers and constantly being vulnerable to having things dropped on our heads.  For sure, sunbathing in your backyard behind a tall fence will become a thing of the past.

Kid with An Unlicensed Go-Cart (Talking On A Phone!) Photographed On Delaware Avenue At Marinello Terrace, July 2018 Kid with An Unlicensed Go-Cart (Talking On A Phone!) Photographed On Delaware Avenue At Marinello Terrace,
July 2018

But during the meeting a little thing came up that shows “mission creep” is happening already, even before the drones have been purchased.  The officers mentioned making observations beyond strictly following the Fourth Amendment, in the case of using drones to track down kids who, in some neighborhoods, are running loud unlicensed ATVs, go carts and dirt bikes on the streets, disturbing residents. The problem with catching the offender kids has always been that the police rarely can respond fast enough to complaints, by the time a squad car arrives the obnoxious roaring ATVs are gone and out of sight.

The solution suggested by the officers would involve following the offenders with drones until they observed where the kids stashed the ATVs, and then use that collected evidence.  Interestingly, those present at the meeting, many of whom have been annoyed by the ATVs, did not raise any objections to that.  I think that the officers threw that out there on purpose, their faces appeared to me to be watching our reactions with much interest and perhaps a touch of satisfaction.

Another key issue with police use of the drones is that the videos that will be recorded.  Federal licensing regulations say that only a limited number of people can observe the videos, searching for evidence.  We were told that under the federal guidelines only three officers actually looked at the videos, the operators of the drone and their supervisor.

Controller For The Matrice 210 Controller For The Matrice 210

But under questioning that assertion broke down for plain practical reasons.  Simply put, determining what is of “evidentiary value” on the videos is not the job of the drone operators, that needs to be decided by APD management and by legal advisors.  So right there we have the collected videos being scrutinized by a crowd.

To put it plainly, the procedures for determining and gathering evidence from these videos has not been agreed upon. Supposedly these procedures will be hammered out by the Albany County District Attorney David Soares, but it’s hard to see how he can create procedures from thin air.  He may not have the time or be able to adequately deal with these issues or even the willingness, for example lately our DA has been busy galloping about the state trying to derail planned oversight procedures for DAs that were recently signed into law.

We were told by the officers that the procedures for handling drone video footage were “the same as with body cams,” the videos that are supposed to be turned on and recording whenever an officer makes an arrest or engages in a confrontation. Those videos are kept for six months and then deleted, not automatically but by hand, by someone who has to remember to do so.  Videos that have evidentiary value, used in a court case for instance, are kept for as long as necessary and only deleted three years after their usefulness has ended.

Albany Police Department Chief Eric Hawkins Albany Police Department Chief Eric Hawkins

As far as I know, the APD has consistently handled body cam videos with restraint and kept them confidential.  Generally the issue with body cam videos in police departments across the country has been what is perceived as too much restraint when the public demands release of controversial videos and the authorities decline to provide.  So at least we have this precedent, we shall see if as a practical matter the drone videos can be treated in an equivalent manner to body cam videos, time and use will tell.

A certain amount of overuse and misuse of this new tech toy is certainly inevitable, certainly not as alarmingly dangerous as overuse of tasers by the police when that tech was new.  With tasers there was much public backlash with overuse of the new weapon, in time a stasis was achieved as the novelty wore off for both the police and for the public. Something similar will happen with the wide adoption of drones, but we can be sure the effects on our daily lives will be unique and transform our society in ways we have yet to imagine.

Oh, and about that poor attendance at the meeting. The suggestion came up that when the cops actually purchase the flying machines they ought to schedule a meeting to show off their new toys.  If that meeting gets enough publicity, for sure crowds of curious people will show up to see what they look like and ask questions.  Serve sandwiches and I’ll bet half the City will be there, I know I will.


Thanks to Beverly Padgett for providing images of the powerpoint we didn’t get to see at this meeting, they were very helpful.