FOX19 Investigates: Domestic Drones

CINCINNATI, OH (FOX19) - Drones and police surveillance are suddenly hot topics in the Tri-State. Ohio and Indiana leaders are banding together to try to entice the Federal Aviation Administration to locate one of six drone testing sites near Dayton. But in Dayton, just earlier this month, local residents and the American Civil Liberties Union were successful in getting the police chief to back away from a planned manned surveillance program.

"The technology is getting smaller, faster, and cheaper," said Melissa Bilancini of ACLU Ohio, who went to Dayton to assert the group's views. "So we were contacted by folks down there and we started working with them to encourage the city to have a policy in place that would both protect individual rights and allow the police to do what they needed to do."

FOX19 also contacted Dayton officials but got no response.

At his home in Ft. Wright, Kentucky, computer executive Dave Hatter of Libertas Technologies told us he is among those worried about the advent of smaller surveillance technology and its possible use by police officers flying drones in the Tri-State.

"It's not just the drones themselves that bother me," said Hatter. "It's the combination of the fact that this data can be captured, can be saved pretty much literally forever at this point."

He points to the number of government agencies which have seen their computer systems hacked-into as cause for concern along with the National Security Agency's giant datacenter.

"Is the footage taken from the drone (by) the local Cincinnati Police going to show-up there? I don't know," Hatter said. "I don't know where all of this is going to go."

He later added, "I'm not necessarily saying the government is going to use it against you. I'm saying as this data gets captured and aggregated and used in ways people could never have conceived of in the past, there's a lot of risk with this."

But Gov. John Kasich (R-Ohio) believes that this kind of risk is inherent in the world we now live in.

"You know, the concerns of privacy is something that is bothersome to a degree," Kasich told FOX19. "But the problem is, technology and our ability to go and --- you use Google and people know where you are and know what you're doing. I mean that's an issue that has to be thought of separately from just the issue of drones."

According to the Buckeye Sheriff's Association, only the Medina County Sheriff's Office, about 20 miles west of Akron, currently uses a drone. The Ohio Association of Chiefs of Police and Fraternal Order of Police of Ohio did not respond to a request from FOX19 about other agencies that may use drones.

In Kentucky, there's a bill this year that would outlaw police from using drones for surveillance without a judge's OK. Indiana state senators voted in January to ask the General Assembly's Legislative Council to study drones. But in Ohio this year, of the 258 bills introduced in the legislature, none deal with drones. There is not a single law on the books that covers unmanned surveillance aircraft in Ohio either.

Sen. Chris Widener (R-Springfield), who co-founded the legislature's aerospace caucus last year and presides over the Ohio Senate, doesn't want to get too far out ahead of the issue by putting restrictions on drones while the domestic technology is still being tested and refined.

Should the FAA award Ohio a drone testing site near Dayton, Sen. Widener believes it could eventually mean 1,200 to 2,000 new jobs and $2 billion in investment. He just hopes those jobs will be filled by people in this region of the country.

According to Sen. Widener, aerospace executives are telling him, "Look, the workforce pool here is still slim."

That's because the industry doesn't believe Tri-State workers have the educational and career backgrounds needed for aerospace jobs.

"They're still seeing deficiencies in project management capabilities and communications skills and knowledge in those STEM areas I mentioned," he said.

By STEM, Widener is referring to science, technology, engineering, and math. If aerospace companies couldn't find qualified workers here they would likely import them from the East Coast and West Coast, he said.

Tri-State leaders won't find out if the Ohio-Indiana bid for a drone testing site is successful until next year. The idea behind the joint bid is that Ohio's history of being a center of new developments in aerospace (NASA has the Glenn Research Center, the Air Force studies aerospace technology at Wright-Patterson AFB, and there are about 1200 aerospace and aviation businesses already in Ohio) is already evidence of the state's aerospace brainpower and climate of innovation. Indiana, meanwhile, has the airspace designations necessary for carrying-out drone flight tests.

One way or another, it appears drones will be appearing in the skies above the Tri-State at some point, a prospect even ACLU Ohio appears to be preparing for.

"We are not against drone technology," said Bilancini. "What we would like to ensure happens is that our state has a policy that protects individual rights."

She and Sen. Widener agree that the way to do that is through dialogue with communities, something that Dayton Police didn't do when they tested a manned aircraft surveillance program in secret last June.

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