Domestic use of aerial drones by law enforcement likely to prompt privacy debate

Monday, January 24, 2011
By Paul Martin

By Peter Finn
Washington Post

AUSTIN – The suspect’s house, just west of this city, sat on a hilltop at the end of a steep, exposed driveway. Agents with the Texas Department of Public Safety believed the man inside had a large stash of drugs and a cache of weapons, including high-caliber rifles.

As dawn broke, a SWAT team waiting to execute a search warrant wanted a last-minute aerial sweep of the property, in part to check for unseen dangers. But there was a problem: The department’s aircraft section feared that if it put up a helicopter, the suspect might try to shoot it down.

So the Texas agents did what no state or local law enforcement agency had done before in a high-risk operation: They launched a drone. A bird-size device called a Wasp floated hundreds of feet into the sky and instantly beamed live video to agents on the ground. The SWAT team stormed the house and arrested the suspect.

“The nice thing is it’s covert,” said Bill C. Nabors Jr., chief pilot with the Texas DPS, who in a recent interview described the 2009 operation for the first time publicly. “You don’t hear it, and unless you know what you’re looking for, you can’t see it.”

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