The Miami-Dade Police Department’s three-year drone program is a high-profile example of municipal law enforcement agencies’ swift embrace of drone technology.
Documents obtained as part of MuckRock and the Electronic Frontier Foundation’s Drone Census project show that the MDPD has had two drones since April 2009. The department purchased one Honeywell T-Hawk for $150,000 and has been leasing a second drone for $1 per year.
Sergeant Andrew Cohen, a pilot officer with the Miami police department, explained the drones’ role in the department to Miami’s NBC affiliate by saying, “It has no weapons… It's just a camera, basically a flying camera.”
Contracts between the MDPD and Honeywell seem to bear our Cohen’s statement. The two-foot, 16-pound drone -- or unmanned Micro Air vehicle -- that the MDPD purchased is equipped with electro-optical cameras and boasts “hover and stare” capability. The drone on lease is outfitted with infrared cameras for night operations, but the Federal Aviation Administration has so far limited the MDPD’s drone use to daylight operations.
With a flight duration of 40 minutes and a battery life of 55 minutes, the diminutive aircrafts appear to be designed for specific maneuvers rather than indiscriminate or long-range monitoring.
The $150,000 contract includes acquiring a ground station and operator and maintenance training. The 13 pilots -- all sworn police pilots -- will be able to pre-program a flight path for the drones and control the aircraft manually, as well as receive images transmitted from the camera on board the vehicles.
Although the Miami police department has fulfilled MuckRock’s request for documents about the sale and lease of the drones, the agency has not yet provided the details of the use of the drones.
EFF, however, has observed that the MDPD’s orbit and role in law enforcement has been limited. A copy of the Miami drones’ Standard Operating Procedures manual, available from the EFF, shows the vehicles must “remain within visual line of sight of both a pilot and an observer and can only be flown during the day,” and are not allowed to operate within the city limits of Miami.
Wondering whether law enforcement or other government agencies are 'hovering and staring' in your hometown? File a free Freedom of Information request through the Drone Census project here.
RQ 16-A T-Hawk photo from the United States Geological Survey