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Chief details police plans for drones over St. Louis

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon:  His timeline may be delayed a bit, but St. Louis Police Chief Sam Dotson is optimistic that within 18 months, his department will have its first drone to police the skies.

Dotson’s initial plan calls for a small one – 25 pounds or so, and the size of a small table – that would be armed with camera and fly as high as 400 feet in the air.

If the drone performs as hoped, more will follow.

Such a drone could track stolen cars threading their way through city side streets, check for potential evil-doers in Busch Stadium, and help “apprehend felons who flee from us, and do so safely,’’ the chief said.

And while St. Louis area residents are mulling over the idea, Dotson offered a bit of assurance to wary members of the audience at Wednesday night’s latest Holden Policy Forum at Webster University.

“You are never going to see a predator drone that has missiles and shoots at people,’’ the chief said.

Any St. Louis drones also would be used solely outdoors, in “the public space,’’ he added. Not peering through windows or flying into homes.

City plans information center to track cameras, drones

Dotson’s plan also calls for a “real time information center,’’ where personnel would operate and oversee the drones, as well as the cameras increasingly posted around the city.

His chief message, though, centers on versatility, safety – and cost.

Dotson already has applied for approval from the Federal Aviation Administration, and has the funding lined up for the first drone, which is estimated to cost around $30,000-$60,000.

That compares to a typical cost of a helicopter that’s “$1.6 million, not including night vision, not including the optics’’ nor the cost of the two pilots.

The city of St. Louis jointly operates a law-enforcement helicopter service with St. Louis and St. Charles counties, the chief said.

“Drones allow us to operate less expensively, and safer and keep officers out of harm’s way,’’ Dotson said.

Among other things, the chief said that drones could end the dangerous high-speed chases between police and suspects that can end in deadly crashes.

More cities considering drones

The forum audience appeared split, with some concerned about privacy while others seemed receptive to the chief’s arguments.  Dotson said he’s used to it, and hearing from all sides as he travels around the city – and the region – to explain what any city-owned drones would, and would not, do.

The cities who already have drones, or are considering them, he said, include New York, Miami, Dallas and Memphis.

Although he didn’t come out and say it, Dotson’s unspoken message is that drones soon will be policing urban skies around the country.  Whether the public has misgivings or not.

But he emphasized that St. Louis was being careful: "We're actually stepping into this very softly."

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