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Drone spotted outside Government Center completely legal

Almost a year to the day that the Minnesota House first heard legislation banning the use of drones in the state, an employee glanced out a window of the city-county Government Center and spotted — what else? — a drone.

"She saw the young man out there doing his thing," said Sgt. Tom Claymon, of the Olmsted County Sheriff's Office. "One of our (assistant county) attorneys is a camera enthusiast, so he took some photographs of the young man and of the unit flying around, and forwarded that to us for our investigation."

As it turns out, the drone — defined as an aircraft whose flight is controlled either by on-board computers or by the remote control of a pilot on the ground or in another vehicle — was part of a high school project. The 17-year-old student flying the device saw himself on the news and quickly ended any speculation of ill intent.

"He ended up calling dispatch and talking to an officer (Tuesday) night," said Capt. John Sherwin of the Rochester Police Department. "He was taking video of the city, the skyline and some of the area."

The teenager won't face criminal charges, Sherwin said, because what he did isn't illegal. At least one Rochester business has drones available for purchase.


Government use

There are no restrictions about a radio-controlled aircraft flying near a government building, or a private party flying a drone, but legislation introduced in 2013 in both the House and the Senate makes it clear what shouldn't happen:

"A law enforcement agency may not use a drone to gather evidence or other information in an investigation," and "a federal agency may not use a drone within the borders of the state of Minnesota," the measure says.

While both Sherwin and Claymon understand the concern about government intrusion that drives the measure, they also agree that drones could be an effective tool for officers.

"If it ever came to that — and obviously, we don't have any plans to be using drones anytime soon — we'd use it in the interest of public safety," Sherwin said. "I think the lawmakers are trying to be proactive about that and get some laws in place, and that's what we want, as well."

In the search for a missing child or adult, or someone who's committed a crime, then fled, "an unmanned drone over a two-block neighborhood would certainly help to narrow things down," he said.

Used in any other application — such as a search of private property — would require a warrant, Sherwin said, "just like any other intrusion into somebody's personal life or space."

Cheaper than a helicopter


With more than 650 square miles to cover in Olmsted County, Claymon agreed drones would be a benefit.

"On any given call, there are lots and lots of areas that we have to try to maintain," he said. "It obviously would be a helpful tool to have."

Relying on air support — police helicopters, in layman's terms — means waiting at least 30 minutes "even with a strong tail wind, assuming it's from the south Metro," Sherwin said. Drones, which could be kept in squad cars, could be deployed much more quickly.

"They're portable," Sherwin said, "and the technology (used) is relatively inexpensive. It certainly beats the maintenance and fuel cost and labor associated with a helicopter."

Using drone technology would be one thing; policing its use is another.

"Really, the technology is certainly out there to photograph us all day long," Claymon said. "It's about being caught between not doing enough and doing too much; given the proper guidelines, though, it doesn't have to be something sinister."

They'll be watching what happens at the legislative level this session, but don't expect changes soon.

"The key is, people shouldn't have any fear that we're going to be out there purchasing drones," Sherwin said. "Any time you have technological advances, some people use it for the negative. In law enforcement, we're looking for how to use it for the positive, for the benefit of public safety, and I think there's definitely applications for it."


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