Police weigh tiny new colleagues: micro-drones

UPDATED: See editor's note at bottom

Will your local police department start hiring drones?

At the San Diego convention of the International Association of Police Chiefs -- the world’s oldest and largest nonprofit organization of police chiefs -- AeroVironment pitched the force on tiny surveillance drones small enough to fit in a police cruiser’s trunk.

According to a report on U-T San Diego, the military supply company used a booth at the huge convention to show off its line of small unmanned military drones to local police officials. The company held a news conference on Sunday at the event, which runs Sept. 29 to Oct. 3., to show off its Qube drone.

That model weighs five pounds and is just three feet in length, yet it can fly as high as 500 feet and stay airborne for 40 minutes.

One of AeroVironment’s consultants is a former Glendale Police sergeant who now works with the Grand Forks, N.D., Sheriff’s Department, one of a handful of agencies in the country experimenting with the drones, according to U-T San Diego.

AeroVironment's unmanned vehicles may be small, but they're mighty; the craft make up 85 percent of the military's unmanned might, a spokesman said. Most of the fleet are used for surveillance, though one plane, called the Switchblade, is designed for "suicide" style assault missions.

The Qube is designed to be a low-cost, reusable craft for surveillance during a police action, however.

Alan Frazier, an assistant professor for the Aviation Department at the University of North Dakota, told the paper he thought about the covert surveillance opportunities the drones represent. But he’s changed his mind.

“I don’t think the public is ready for that right now,” he said.

Ready or not, here they come. The Qube is only one of a fleet of tiny flying robots from AeroVironment, the first targeting the police directly. The company’s Wasp AE represents another branch in unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), aimed at the military instead.

The Wasp has been used by the U.S. military for small unit work ranging from reconnaissance and surveillance to tactical intelligence. Hand-launchable at just 2.8 pounds and 16 inches from wingtip to tip, the new model flies 20 percent longer than its predecessor.

And after a year of evaluation and user testing, the U.S. Air Force recently gave it the stamp of approval, announcing May 22 that the Wasp AE will be included in its Battlefield Air Targeting Micro Air Vehicle (BATMAV) program and placing an order for nearly $2.5 million.

EDITOR'S NOTE: An earlier version of this story incorrectly labeled the Qube as a "suicide drone." AeroVironment's Qube is meant as a reusable surveillance platform, unlike the company's Switchblade drone.