LOS ANGELES – This could be the shape of things to come in crimefighting.
In the months ahead, the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department will test an unmanned, remote-controlled surveillance plane.
If deputies want a birds'-eye view of a standoff, they might scramble the unmanned drone instead of a helicopter to get a closer, quieter look. Within minutes, real-time color video would be streamed to a portable computer system manned by an officer 250 feet below.
Officials with the nation's largest sheriff's department said it is believed to be the first field test of drones by local police in a major U.S. urban area.
Much lighter and smaller than the military drones flown over Iraq and Afghanistan, and only a fraction of the cost, the aircraft is not much bigger than a model airplane and will initially be limited to scanning rooftops for break-ins and finding lost children or hikers.
Depending on the outcome of the tests, the department could eventually put as many as 20 of the aircraft into service, expanding their use to searching for suspects on the run and monitoring hostage situations, among other things. The drones would be used in addition to the sheriff's fleet of 18 helicopters.
"We're really beyond the cutting edge," said sheriff's Cmdr. Sid Heal, who heads the department's technology exploration project. "We think this has great potential."
So do police and security officials nationwide. The federal Department of Homeland Security has used unmanned aerial vehicles, or UAVs, to patrol the seas and spot illegal border crossings. President Bush is pushing Congress to provide funding for more drones to step up surveillance along the Mexican border.
Elsewhere, police in Gaston County, N.C., said earlier this year they would use a drone to find drug fields and keep large community events peaceful. Sheriff's officials in Charles County, Md., tested an unmanned plane while monitoring a gathering of bikers.
Where authorities see a novel law enforcement tool, others worry about intrusive government surveillance.
If a plane is used to gain evidence that police would otherwise need a search warrant to collect, that could infringe on privacy rights, according to law professor Charles Whitebread of the University of Southern California.
In a 2001 case, the U.S. Supreme Court found that federal agents had carried out an illegal search in violation of the Fourth Amendment when they used thermal imaging equipment to spot marijuana grown inside a private home.
Heal said the Sheriff's Department has no plans to spy on people. He said the unmanned planes would not give deputies that much more surveillance capability than helicopters.
One drone costs $20,000 to $30,000. In contrast, a helicopter and the necessary fuel, maintenance and manpower cost millions.
The sheriff's helicopters are often involved in other calls and unavailable for emergency use. Helicopters also make so much noise that SWAT teams have been known to order them away because they interfered with ground communications.
In the past two years, the Sheriff's Department has teamed with Octatron Inc. of La Verne, Calif., to develop the SkySeer, a four-pound UAV powered by replaceable battery that lasts about 70 minutes. It has aluminum and nylon fabric wings atop a Kevlar fuselage.
With a top speed of just under 29 mph, the unmanned plane is too slow for car chases.
Equipped with an infrared sensor, it can operate at night to help find people lost in cold, mountainous areas. About 6 1/2 feet wide and almost 3 feet long, the plane can be folded easily into a tube small enough to fit in the back seat of a squad car.
Last week, sheriff's officials demonstrated the UAV in an abandoned field. A deputy on the ground adjusted coordinates on a laptop that beamed a signal to the plane's global positioning system. Soon, the drone was circling in a holding pattern. Another screen showed real-time, color images fed from above.
Landing proved tricky. As officials attempted to bring it down, the plane suddenly nose-dived into the ground and crashed.
"Everything works in the lab," Heal joked.