Some Montgomery County taxpayers grumble about a government with bureaucratic drones who they say command large salaries for little useful work. Someday soon, they may see another kind cruising the county skies.
County officials said Thursday that they are studying how the camera-equipped unmanned craft might be of use to firefighters and police. Montgomery has purchased four of them — and will probably add a few more — for a year-long study of their potential for monitoring fire scenes or other emergencies, and possibly bolstering security at the county’s correctional facility in Clarksburg, Md. If an incident involved the possible use of poisonous gas, a drone with censors could investigate before sending in emergency responders.
Dan Hoffman, the county’s chief innovation officer, said the drones are small, lightweight “commercially available, off-the shelf” helicopter-style brands with no potential military value.
“They’re the kind of thing you buy off of Amazon,” he said.
The project is still in the planning stage, he added.
“We have no intention of using them operationally for quite some time, if at all,” Hoffman said. “We may decide there is not a compelling reason.”
Three of the drones — Phantom quadcopters — were purchased for less than $1,000 each. A Parrot brand cost about $300. He said the study will cost less than $10,000.
Montgomery would become one of more than two dozen local governments that either deploy drones or have applications pending with the Federal Aviation Administration to use them, primarily for law enforcement. The Washington Post reported earlier this year that federal, state and local police agencies are increasingly borrowing the craft from Customs and Border Protection for domestic surveillance operations.
The drone study, which is being led by Hoffman, came up during a briefing for the County Council’s public safety committee on the status of the county’s emergency preparedness. Council members expressed some unease about the lack of guidelines in place for their use.
In an interview after the hearing, committee chairman Phil Andrews (D-Rockville-Gaithersburg), said the idea makes sense but he also wants to establish careful protocols for drone use.
“I think what’s needed is a description of how the drones will be used, when they will be used, who’s in charge and under what situations,” Andrews said. “And what are the safeguards to ensure against inappropriate use?”
Hoffman said he would return to the committee soon with “a research road map.”
Hoffman was joined at the briefing by Fire Chief Steve Lohr and Police Chief Thomas Manger.
Manger said his department was open to exploring the possible use of drones, but expressed concern about the possible public reaction.
“Every police department that has started their use, the controversy has been pretty significant,” Manger said, according to a report of the committee meeting by Bethesda Beat.