ROCKVILLE- The chief innovation officer says it’s Christmas time for the county, but members of the county council say they’re shocked to learn the county owned drones and were planning to test them without informing the council.
On Sept. 23, the council unanimously approved a motion to introduce a resolution, written by Councilmember Roger Berliner (D-1), to have the County Executive’s Office be transparent with the county council and the residents about the use of drones.
“We are advised that our county purchased four drones and it sort of took a number of us aback. We did not appreciate that our county actually had drones,” Berliner said. “I take no issue. I think there are appropriate uses of drones but at the same time, 13 states that have considered the use of drones and have concluded there are a lot of public policy issues associated with the use of drones and developed a protocol for the use and conditions of drones.”
Montgomery County government owns four drones: one was purchased by the executive branch’s Office of Innovation and three were assigned to the Montgomery County Fire and Rescue Service.
Dan Hoffman, chief innovation officer for Montgomery County, referred to the drones as “Christmas presents” and said one, valued at less than $500, was sitting in his office.
The county-owned drones have not been tested yet, according to Chris Voss, director of Office of Emergency Management and Homeland Security. Voss said the county has asked the FAA for a certificate of waiver to use the drones.
“We’re in the process of determining how we could use them. We know that there are some benefits to the devices, but there is a process we have to go through to get there and part of that is making sure we get the waiver from the FAA to make sure we can use them,” Voss said.
Drones, or “unmanned aerial systems,” first came to mainstream public attention when internet megastore Amazon unveiled its plans to use drones to delivery packages to customers. Recently drones have received attention for reports of devices hitting bystanders, even killing a man in New York. Drones are operated through autonomous onboard computers or by a pilot using a remote control.
Hoffman said none of the drones owned by the county are military drones, but all are inexpensive military drones. The Office of Innovation owns one Parrot drone and the drones owned by the fire department are rotor drones. Drones may be purchased from online sites such as Amazon and Radio Shack for as little as $9.
“The potential for drone use is almost unlimited. If you think about, worst case scenario, a gas attack in a metro underground station, rather than committing human resources to determine with meters what the extent of that is or how many casualties there are, we can send an unmanned drone equipped with a meter and camera that can submit the data to a central command platform. Your mind can wonder from opportunities exist for the use of those,” said MCFRS Chief Steve Lohr.
While public safety offices such as the Department of Corrections have expressed interest in testing the drones, the Montgomery County Police Department declined to test the drones, citing citizens concerns over privacy.
“I can tell you everywhere in every jurisdiction that has started using them, the controversy has been pretty significant. I think that we should be judicious in terms of thinking how it can be of use. I think of the ability to search inside the building where we have an armed individual, I think about being able to see the other side of a building that you can’t get to is invaluable, so there may be some significant uses. But I think the privacy concerns that the public has are pretty significant and consequently the police department does not have any drones and has no plans at this point,” said MCPD Chief J. Thomas Manger.
The Office of Innovation will work with the county’s attorney, office of public information, the University of Maryland School of Public Policy and the National Institute of Standards and Technology to create a pilot program in which interested county departments will learn how to use the drones and the county will create a policy on how to use them.
“We also understand the limitations of drones and concerns about privacy and all the other things that go with that. This is not something we are pushing to the forefront without deliberate thought, consultation, and interaction with everyone who has a role in this,” Lohr said.