Iowa public safety agency exploring uses for drones

Emails show contact with manufacturers, interest in toy drones for aerial imaging

Written by Shawn Musgrave

The Iowa Department of Public Safety has been looking into deploying an umanned aerial vehicle (UAV) since at least last May, documents released to MuckRock show. At the urging of the agency’s Commissioner, the Division of Intelligence has explored various means of acquiring a drone, from outright purchase to leasing to borrowing a unit from the FBI. The Division of Intelligence is the bureau within Iowa DPS responsible for homeland security and interfacing with law enforcement around the state. The Division of Intelligence also runs Iowa’s fusion center.
While the agency has yet to make any final purchasing decisions or begin the authorization process, it is looking into a number of vehicles ranging from expensive UAVs designed for law enforcement operations to consumer-level models marketed as toys. The push behind Iowa DPS’ iniquiries into drones apparently comes from Commissioner Brian London, who emailed the agents tasked with researching the technology to prioritize the task. In a November email to the Director of the Iowa DPS Division of Intelligence, London wrote, “I want to keep on [drone research]. It has potential.” 

The emails indicate that Iowa DPS first reached out to Canadian UAV manufacturer Aeryon Labs last May. A sales manager from the company touted its Scout drone as popular among police departments “because of its low-cost of operation, speed to deployment, and limited training requirements.” According to the sales manager, police applications for its product include “search and rescue, aerial surveillance, accident reconstruction/evidence gathering, crowd control, suspect surveillance, hazardous material applications and general investigation uses.” The Aeryon Scout comes in a number of models costing between $60,000 and $140,00, according to the emails.  The Director of the Iowa DPS Division of Intelligence also circulated an Aeryon white paper to the special agents tasked with researching drones by the Commissioner. Entitled “Considerations in Selecting a Small UAV for Police Operations,” the white paper outlines such factors police agencies should consider when making their drone purchase, including intended surveillance purposes, operation conditions, cost, portability and flight time.
In addition to Aeryon, Iowa DPS agents contacted the surveillance equipment retailer GPS Intel in November and January, asking a company representative for “any contacts to purchase or lease a UAV.” Frustrated by the steep cost of the units, the Commissioner suggested purchasing a $300 consumer drone he saw at a cell phone retailer. While the Parrot AR.Drone 2.0 is marketed as a toy hobby plane for recreational use and amateur filmmaking, the Commissioner directed the Division of Intelligence to look into them as a “cheap man’s drone” that “might just get us what we need and can afford.” The Maine State Police purchased a Parrot AR.Drone 2.0 in January for tactical missions, but has yet to go through the authorization process required by the Federal Aviation Administration.
The agency also made inquiries into borrowing an FBI drone. According to one email, an Iowa DPS agent called the tech supervisor at the FBI field office in Omaha, who indicated that the FBI “have Drones at Quantico[in Virginia] that could be here in a day [sic].” The Division of Intelligence Commander instructed the agent to look into this option further, asking, “Can you find out what the criteria is for use of the FBI drone?” According to the Iowa Department of Public Safety spokesperson, the agency has yet to issue a request for proposals or pursue any set course for acquiring a drone, and “there are no immediate plans to purchase drone technology for use by DPS.” 

Read the responsive documents embedded below or on the request page.


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