FAA Nixes L.A. Sheriff's Plans to Use Drones to Man Skies

The Los Angeles County sheriff's plan to use small, remote-controlled planes to track criminals and look for lost hikers has been temporarily grounded by federal officials worried about air safety.

The Federal Aviation Administration won't authorize the drones until it investigates a demonstration the sheriff's department conducted last week, FAA spokeswoman Laura Brown said.

"I wouldn't want to term us as peeved, but we were definitely surprised," Brown said.

She said agency officials told the sheriff's department it needed their authorization before flying the drones to ensure they don't interfere with other aircraft. The department could face disciplinary action over the demonstration.

Sheriff's officials described the controversy as a simple misunderstanding.

"A private citizen can go to the store and buy one of those model airplanes and fly them around. But because we're doing it as a public service, we have to deal with the FAA?" said Sheriff's Cmdr. Sid Heal.

The 5-pound, 3-foot-long drones cost $20,000 to $30,000 each and can beam video images 250 feet to deputies below.

If they prove effective in tests, Sheriff Lee Baca plans to buy 20 drones for overhead surveillance, such as monitoring hostage situations and searching for fleeing suspects.

Supporters say they are much cheaper to operate than the department's 18 helicopters.

Privacy advocates worry law enforcement will use the drones to spy on people — a concern officials said is unwarranted.