March 26, 2008

MIAMI (Reuters) – Miami police could soon be the first in the United States to use cutting-edge, spy-in-the-sky technology to beef up their fight against crime.

A small pilotless drone manufactured by Honeywell International, capable of hovering and “staring” using electro-optic or infrared sensors, is expected to make its debut soon in the skies over the Florida Everglades.

If use of the drone wins Federal Aviation Administration approval after tests, the Miami-Dade Police Department will start flying the 14-pound (6.3 kg) drone over urban areas with an eye toward full-fledged employment in crime fighting.

“Our intentions are to use it only in tactical situations as an extra set of eyes,” said police department spokesman Juan Villalba.

“We intend to use this to benefit us in carrying out our mission,” he added, saying the wingless Honeywell aircraft, which fits into a backpack and is capable of vertical takeoff and landing, seems ideally suited for use by SWAT teams in hostage situations or dealing with “barricaded subjects.”

Miami-Dade police are not alone, however.

Taking their lead from the U.S. military, which has used drones in Iraq and Afghanistan for years, law enforcement agencies across the country have voiced a growing interest in using drones for domestic crime-fighting missions.

Known in the aerospace industry as UAVs, for unmanned aerial vehicles, drones have been under development for decades in the United States.

The CIA acknowledges that it developed a dragonfly-sized UAV known as the “Insectohopter” for laser-guided spy operations as long ago as the 1970s.

And other advanced work on robotic flyers has clearly been under way for quite some time.

“The FBI is experimenting with a variety of unmanned aerial vehicles,” said Marcus Thomas, an assistant director of the bureau’s Operational Technology Division.

“At this point they have been used mainly for search and rescue missions,” he added. “It certainly is an up-and-coming technology and the FBI is researching additional uses for UAVs.”

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