Special Report: Drones Watching from Above

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GRAND JUNCTION, Colo. (KKCO) -- Birds in Colorado’s skies may soon have some company. The state is currently in the running to become a testing ground for domestic drones to see how unmanned aircrafts can be used.

Aviation has been in law enforcement for almost 100 years, and the Mesa County Sheriff's drones are simply a new way for them to carry out investigations and searches at an affordable cost.

For a long time, though, the term “drone” has conjured up negative ideas like spying and even “Big Brother.” Authorities say their operations are quite the opposite.

Hovering high above the streets and Valley, it's no bird or plane, but rather, a drone.

"it's basically an airplane controlled remotely by a pilot on the ground," Mesa County Sheriff’s Office Unmanned Aircraft Program manager Ben Miller said. “We're using unmanned aircraft here in Mesa County for basically search and rescue missions and aerial photography of crime scenes."

Miller says Mesa County is currently leading the country in the integration of law enforcement drones.

"We count it as a responsibility, one to be very open and provide education to the public," he said.

For a small agency, these drones provide more than just public safety. Miller says taxpayers are saving thousands of dollars each year with drones costing $25 an hour to run as opposed to $650 an hour for a manned aircraft.

In the past four years, the Sheriff’s Office has become an expert when it comes to these aircrafts, so much so that members were called on by the Senate Judiciary Committee to testify about their use.

"Questions directed toward me about what specifically we've done with unmanned aircraft, where we see it going in the future," Miller said.

Where law enforcement drone use goes in the future is unknown, however, and that has some concerned.

"I think the first initial assumption was, 'By drones, they mean the predator drones from Iraq and Afghanistan," Miller said.

For some, the word "drone" can carry a negative stigma, signaling spying or an invasion of privacy.

"Certainly, we don't want to see any invasions of privacy that aren't necessary," Chief Deputy District Attorney Dan Rubinstein said.

Rubinstein says questions have come up about local drones, but says the buzz is likely in response to media attention and fear.

“It's not very invasive, I mean, it can't look inside your house, it can't hear what's going on inside your house," he said.

The District Attorney’s office currently investigates crimes in a number of ways, and Rubinstein doesn't foresee drones being used without a search warrant.

"[We use] wiretaps, pole cameras, things like that, GPS, that all we use warrants for fairly routinely,” he said.

Rubinstein says the U.S. Supreme Court ruled flying an aircraft above someone's property at 400 feet is not considered a search, and says it would be difficult to argue the Fourth Amendment when it comes to drones because people's expectations of privacy have changed over time.

"What is a reasonable expectation of privacy? We all know that if you go on the internet, you can zoom in on basically any person's backyard in town," he said of search tools online.

Miller argues there is already policy in place to respect privacy should a drone capture private information, and the biggest challenge now is making sure the public knows why they're flying in the first place.

"We don't consider it any different that we took a photo with a camera on a small little helicopter, or standing on the ground," he said. "[We] need to be very transparent to how we use them to educate the public so we maintain that trust."

Recently the sheriff's unmanned aircraft program has completed an aerial survey at the Mesa County landfill. In past years, taxpayers have shelled out upwards of $10,000 to order airborne photos of the landfill because it required a manned aircraft. Using the drones, the same photos were taken for $250 dollars.

The Mesa County Sheriff's Office is looking to expand how many officers are able to operate the drones in the near future.

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