Police agencies have been clamoring for the right to use unmanned aerial vehicles in domestic airspace, and manufacturers are waiting for the day when they become a common sight in the skies.
But the Federal Aviation Administration has been notoriously tight in issuing licenses to law enforcement agencies that want to use unmanned aerial vehicles for overhead surveillance. The agency cites safety concerns as its main reason.
But the agency can allow for such flights in extreme cases, as the Texas Rangers did in operations against the Yearning for Zion Ranch in May.
After allegations surfaced that children were being abused at the sect’s compound in Eldorado, Texas, the Rangers went to the FAA shortly before the raid and filed for a “temporary flight restriction” in the area surrounding the compound. This order allowed the Rangers to fly a drone overhead to collect intelligence, according to Paul Ramirez of Mission Technologies Inc., a San Antonio-based manufacturer of small UAVs.
Citing threats allegedly made by the sect’s leaders to shoot down aircraft flying above the compound, and the belief that children were in immediate danger, the FAA granted the request. Mission Technologies loaned a Buster model UAV to the state agency to perform the surveillance.
“When the Texas Rangers call and say [sect members] are threatening to shoot down anything that flies over, that puts them on the list right there,” said Ramirez.
The flight restriction allowed the UAV to fly in a 10-mile radius up to 1,000 feet.
After the sun went down, sect members could hear the aircraft, which weighs about 17 pounds — but couldn’t locate it. Operators saw members looking up into the sky all night.
“They could hear something, but they couldn’t see it. It kept them up all night to say the least,” said Ramirez.