FAA approves unmanned aircraft program for Illinois State Police

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Illinois State Police received federal approval Friday to use unmanned aircraft during specific operations, but doesn’t want you to call them drones.

The FAA has authorized a two-year plan by state police to fly unmanned aircraft that would comply with federal standards.

State Police plan to use the aircraft to speed up and enhance assessment of traffic crashes and crime scenes, the statement said.

“The ability to obtain accurate measurements and clear images from aerial photographs will significantly reduce the amount of time highways are closed during the initial investigation of major traffic crashes,” ISP said.

The statement avoided using the term “drone” because “it carries the perception of pre-programmed or automatic flight patterns, and random, indiscriminate collection ofimages and information.”

State police worked with lawmakers and civil rights groups to address privacy concerns as the program was developed, ISP said.

Ed Yohnka, spokesman for the American Civil Liberties Union, said he’s happy state lawmakers passed a law two years ago limiting law enforcement agencies to specific instances under which drones can be used.

“One of the concerns was always that a drone is an incredibly powerful tool to see into areas that police couldn’t otherwise see in,” Yohnka said.

“It’s used to follow someone at a relatively low cost and extended period of time. And that’s exactly why the Legislature passed it and the governor signed the bill. I think this [FAA authorization] shows the wisdom of that decision,” he said.

Passed in August 2013, the Freedom from Drone Surveillance Act limits police to a list of instances drones can be used:

  • to investigate crime scenes and traffic crashes in public areas;
  • to counter a high-risk terrorist attack identified by the U.S. Secretary of Homeland Security;
  • if a warrant is obtained;
  • if law enforcement determines that “swift action” is needed to prevent harm to life, prevent a suspect from escaping or stop evidence from being destroyed;
  • if police are trying to find a missing person but not conducting a criminal investigation.

Any footage gathered by an unmanned aircraft must be destroyed after 30 days and cannot be disclosed unless it contains evidence of criminal activity or is relevant to an ongoing investigation, according to the law.

State police said their unmanned aircraft program is “not being implemented for surveillance purposes” unless needed for an emergency.

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