Mt. Vernon Register-News

April 1, 2013

Sheriff's department has drone

By RICK HAYES rick.hayes@register-news.com
The Register-News

---- — MT. VERNON — County officials may be putting the cart ahead of the horse in its efforts to pass an anti-drone ordinance, although the intent is to “send a message” to federal officials.

Since the ordinance was proposed during a discussion of “old business” during the County Board meeting a week ago, the Register-News has learned the county has a drone in its possession — used by the sheriff’s department.

Sheriff Roger Mulch confirmed last week the sheriff’s department has a small saucer with two propellers alongside, much like a hover.

“We use it for surveillance, and it works really good,” Mulch said. The sheriff’s department would not allow this newspaper to take photographs of the drone, fearing it will tip off criminals or properties that are under surveillance.

County Board member Jeff Williams brought the ordinance to the attention of the Board at the suggestion of Chairman Robert White, according to Williams.

“The chairman pointed me in the direction of the Internet, and that’s where I found the ordinance,” Williams said Friday. “It makes a statement I guess, much like the resolutions on the second amendment. It more or less sends a message that we’re not for that (drones). It’s a scary thought.”

Williams said he was not aware the sheriff’s department had a drone in its possession. He also indicated other counties have passed similar ordinances, although none of them are in Illinois.

Mulch said during the Board meeting, “I don’t know what technology is going to do for law enforcement but drones are going to be a big part of it, and we don’t want to ban ourselves from doing what we need to do.”

Unmanned aerial vehicles are not allowed in U.S. general airspace because of the threat they present to other aircraft. Under the FAA Modernization and Reform Act of 2012 the FAA is directed to create regulations that will enable drones to fly throughout U.S. airspace by September 2015. However, small drones — 25 pounds or less — are now permitted to fly in general airspace below 400 feet for the use of police and first responders, with FAA permission.

Unmanned aerial vehicles have the capability to watch individuals, groups and populations on a 24-hour basis, following and recording their movements for days and weeks in an unprecedented way, as well as the capability to monitor cell phone and text messaging of individuals, groups and populations, information states.

According to the FAA web site, one of the goals of the agency is to “develop air traffic rules, assign the use of airspace, and control air traffic. The safe and efficient use of navigable airspace is one of our primary objectives.”

Leland Widick, certified flight instructor at Mt. Vernon Airport commented, “Airspace as far as the FAA is concerned is nebulous. Air space is classified as far as conditions on how you can operate. The classification up to 1,200 feet is Class G space, which is uncontrolled airspace. It’s different visual minimums. It doesn’t address unmanned aircraft.”

He added, “My personal opinion is we don’t need them (drones) unless they are sanctioned by court order. It’s new technology that the FAA hasn’t caught up with yet.”

“How else can you make a statement? Williams posed. “Maybe if enough counties pass this ordinance, the feds will think about it. I don’t think anything needs to be done right away. The feds are going to do what they want to anyway.”

The ordinance was tabled by the County Board, and is expected to be discussed during its April meeting.