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Texas DPS launches new drone program

Texas DPS is launching a new drone program, about eight years after scrapping its first effort due to challenges posed by federal restrictions and maintenance costs

By Allie Morris
San Antonio Express-News

AUSTIN — The Texas Department of Public Safety is launching a new drone program, about eight years after scrapping its first effort due to challenges posed by federal restrictions and maintenance costs.

Over the past few months, the department has quietly spent about $70,000 to purchase 17 drones, known formally as unmanned aerial systems.

The most expensive, an Aeryon SkyRanger equipped with a high-tech camera, cost $48,000 and can fly for up to 50 minutes, department purchase records show.

DPS officials weren’t available to discuss details Thursday, but DPS spokesman Tom Vinger said the SkyRanger, equipped with specialized software and an extended battery life, mostly will be used by the highway patrol for crash scene reconstruction.

The other new drones will aid in search and rescue, disaster support, aerial observation and crime scene photography, among other uses, a news release about the program said.

“The (drone) is an excellent tool to deploy when DPS aircraft are unavailable; if a mission is too dangerous for manned aircraft to be deployed; or when deemed more cost effective than conventional aircraft,” the release stated.

It wasn’t immediately clear whether the drones will be used at the border.

So far, three agency officials have passed the 10-hour training needed to fly the drones, which only can be operated during daylight hours.

The department’s 18-page policy guide says division directors will “establish protocols to prevent violations of policy, law, and public privacy,” but those aren’t detailed in the document.

The drones add to a growing fleet of DPS aircraft that already includes 15 helicopters and nine planes. The San Antonio Express-News reported last year that two high-altitude surveillance planes DPS bought recently for more than $15 million to help secure the Mexican border regularly circle over San Antonio. Details about their missions are scarce.

When asked recently why the department uses planes over drones, a spokesman said “their missions and capabilities are not comparable. There are also numerous limitations placed on Unmanned Aerial Vehicles” by the Federal Aviation Administration.

But Vinger said Thursday, “the regulatory environment has greatly improved” since the FAA issued clarified rules in June 2016.

DPS initially deployed drones in 2008, one of the first state and local law enforcement agencies to use the devices. Within two years, however, the department gave up the program over concern with “complicated Federal Aviation Administration restrictions, battery life of the device, maintenance costs and deficient video quality,” according to the agency.

The department began developing the latest drone operating procedures in June last year, records obtained by the Express-News showed. The finalized policy bars the drones from carrying weapons or tear gas and requires they fly at less than 400 feet in the air.

Several local police departments in Texas already use drones. The Lone Star State is home to at least 28 law enforcement agencies with drones, the highest number nationwide according to a 2017 report from the Center for the Study of the Drone at Bard College. Though drones must be registered with the FAA, none is listed yet for the Department of Public Safety.

The Legislature recently opted to impose costly penalties on people who fly drones above a large sporting event, a prison or a detention center. The shift comes amid growing concern that drones can be used to drop drugs, weapons or other contraband into correctional facilities.

©2018 San Antonio Express-News