When many Americans hear the word “drone,” they conjure up images of mass surveillance or bombs being dropped on war-torn countries on the other side of the world.
The officials behind Fairfax County’s proposed unmanned aircraft systems program are aware of the sinister connotations that drones still carry for many, so they have been quick to assure the public that their intentions are wholly benign.
“I do believe in this program. I think it would bring big benefits,” Deputy County Executive for Public Safety and former Fairfax County Police Chief David Rohrer said. “…It’s all about limited, targeted use.”
The drones will not be weaponized, and they will look less like the Predator aircraft used in U.S. military and intelligence operations and more like the drones used by hobbyists, Rohrer told community members who attended the county’s sixth and final public information meeting on the UAS program at the Mason Governmental Center in Annandale on Feb. 4.
A banner on Fairfax County’s webpage for the planned program emphatically states that the technology will not be used to conduct random surveillance activities or to harass, intimidate, target, or discriminate against any individual or group.
If the program is approved by the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors, the county will use drones as a supplemental tool to assist in existing police, fire, and emergency management operations, including search-and-rescue missions, disaster investigations and assessments, hazardous material responses, and crash reconstruction.
A UAS program would benefit public safety agencies by allowing them to obtain more comprehensive visual information from places that may be inaccessible or dangerous for manned aircraft or people, according to Fairfax County Office of Emergency Management Deputy Coordinator Roy Shrout, who is leading the county’s efforts to launch a drone program.
“It’s going to give us a lot more flexibility with the types of missions that this thing can fly,” Shrout said. “The low cost of these things and the ability that you can fly them at different altitudes, get in places where you can’t otherwise see with a helicopter, again, I think it’s going to just give us a great opportunity that we don’t have already.”
Fairfax County started seriously working on a UAS program in May 2017 when Shrout and other county officials assembled a work group to develop an outline of possible goals for the program and to research best practices.
A number of jurisdictions in Virginia have already implemented their own UAS programs.
The Loudoun County Sheriff’s Office began deploying a drone for search-and-rescue cases last year, and first responders in York County formed a drone team in 2016 that Shrout considers to be the best program in the state, possibly even the mid-Atlantic region.
Fairfax County staff initially expected to receive approval for the UAS program proposal last year, but when it convened to discuss the program on July 31, 2018, the Board of Supervisors deferred a final decision after raising concerns that the presented draft program manual did not adequately address privacy questions.
“Privacy is a huge issue,” Mason District Supervisor Penny Gross said. “We really need to resolve that issue.”
Under the Virginia Code Section 19.2-60.1, public bodies are required to obtain search warrants whenever they use unmanned aircraft systems except in a select few cases, such as emergency responses to Amber and Senior Alerts or when a law enforcement officer is required to file an accident report for crash reconstruction purposes.
Shrout says the program will strictly adhere to the parameters of the Virginia Code, and the vast majority of flights will not involve video recording.
All data obtained through the drones must follow the Library of Virginia’s regulations for record retention, though any home addresses, license plate numbers, or other personal information that get captured would be redacted if the images or photos are released publicly.
If implemented, the UAS program will be overseen by a steering committee that would appoint a program manager. Addressing any potential issues or concerns raised by the community would be among the committee’s responsibilities.
“If we do find that there’s an issue, we can address it immediately and go forward from there,” Shrout said. “From our standpoint, we’re really doing a lot of good work with regard to privacy and making sure that the public feels comfortable with us being in the air.”
A task force created by the Board of Supervisors to review the draft UAS program helped inform the proposed guidelines related to issues like privacy, civil rights, and wildlife protection.
In addition to various Fairfax County agencies, the task force has representatives from the Federal Aviation Administration, George Mason University, the McLean Citizens Association, the Audubon Society, the American Civil Liberties Union, and the NAACP.
The task force has met three times since first forming on Oct. 17. Its next meeting is scheduled for Feb. 11.
Shrout hopes to bring a finished draft manual to the Board of Supervisors’ public safety committee on Mar. 12 with the board potentially able to make a final decision in May.
The amount of training that will be required means that it will take another two months after the program is officially approved for any drones to start flying in the field.
While the UAS program is currently limited to the Fairfax County Police Department, the Fire and Rescue Department, and the Office of Emergency Management, other county agencies, such as the Fairfax County Park Authority, have also expressed interest in using drones.
“I don’t know of any [places] out there that are going to be an all-county, all-hazard UAS program,” Shrout said. “That’s where I’d like to see it a year from now.”