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Lopez: Drones will revolutionize law enforcement

Stuart Orozco, flight operator with Aeronvironment Inc., prepares

Stuart Orozco, flight operator with Aeronvironment Inc., prepares lo launch a UAS (unmanned aircraft system) named Puma from the deck of the U.S. Navy high speed vessel Swift near Key West, Florid. (April 26, 2013) Photo Credit: AP

Friday in Washington, the House Judiciary Committee subcommittee on Crime, Terrorism, Homeland Security and Investigations is scheduled to hold a hearing called, "Eyes in the Sky: The Domestic Use of Unmanned Aerial Systems." Several lawmakers have proposed legislation to limit the use of drones domestically.

The public's misconception about drones has fed much of the current controversy over this new and indispensable technology. The typical concerns focus on individual privacy, government intrusion and the potential erosion of basic freedoms. Fortunately, there are many other practical uses for drones and the accompanying navigation, automation and payload components.

This technology has advanced to a level that has been proven to be effective in military applications. But the transference from military to civilian use also has the potential to aid law enforcement agencies and, in the future, will have many commercial applications, as well.

In an era where scores of Americans have suffered tragedies at the hands of rogue gunmen, we can use technology to mitigate human losses and potentially save lives. In a scenario involving an active shooter, for instance, police departments often have to wait for a helicopter to deploy. But with a small unmanned aerial vehicle, a trained officer could deploy a unit in minutes, saving precious time and providing police with an aerial view of the landscape and a tactical advantage.

In fact, recent testimony in Washington suggested that drones could be valuable in the identification and pursuit of suspects in the kind of terrorist event that took place at the Boston Marathon. Imagine a law enforcement tool that could spot a bomber or shooter trying to hide in the woods or hilly terrain, or even in a suburban neighborhood, without the criminal even aware he is being observed, compared to the noise and attention a helicopter creates.

Another overlooked aspect is post-disaster assessment, an element of recovery and relief we were all too familiar with here on Long Island after Sandy destroyed our shoreline towns. Areas hard hit by extraordinary weather events could be assessed quickly, which can aid in dispatching assistance to regions most in need. In fact, several aerial systems, such as infrared camera pods to detect heat, already exist and can be used to find a lost or injured person trapped under rubble.

Technology will soon be available to enable drones to launch temporary cellular transmitters over regions that have lost cell service due to a storm or massive power outage, mitigating the kind of communications interruption that can delay relief efforts.

In the Aviation Department at Farmingdale State College, we are planning a program to train students and law enforcement officers on the use and operation of drones, precisely because we envision such future applications and a job market for those who possess the required skills and training. Colleges can play a vital role in working with local and federal law enforcement in providing a steady flow of well-prepared drone operators, technicians and experts.

Commercial operators of these systems will use them for precision landscape surveys, delivery services, building inspections -- maybe even window washing. Civil engineers will be able to create precise, three-dimensional photo mosaics of a site in minutes instead of hours. They could use these 3-D models to plan structures and evaluate the soil. Operators will be able to fly over pipelines at low altitudes to survey national supply lines.

There are endless and very promising uses for drones and related aerial systems. Government investment and public support are vital to promote this technology, to help educate the relevant enforcement agencies and future commercial operators on the proper use of these systems. With proper education we can reassure the nation that we can be safer if we make a commitment to use, to the fullest, the knowledge and tools we already have in hand.