The Maine State Police Department purchased a $300 toy drone—seen by the department as a "great reconnaissance tool"—in January, according to new documents uncovered Friday.
According to Christopher Parr, a staff attorney with the Maine State Police Department, the $300 Parrot drone "has not been deployed in operations by our agency to date, and will not be so deployed until appropriate agency policies are in place that provide clear guidance to Maine State Police personnel on the use of this technology." The purchase of the drone was uncovered with a Freedom of Information request by MuckRock, a watchdog organization that has been tracking drone use by law enforcement.
Though use of the smartphone-controlled drone by a private citizen would be legal according to the Federal Aviation Administration's Model Aircraft Operating Standards, which allows hobbyists to fly small aircraft up to 400 feet above the surface, use by a government agency would be illegal without an FAA Certificate of Authorization.
The Maine State Police Department was not on a list of COA waivers issued by the FAA last fall. Stephen McCausland, the force's Public Information Officer, says the department wasn't aware that it needed an FAA waiver because it's a toy.
"Is FAA authorization needed? Anyone can buy this on Amazon and use it right? It has not been used," he says. "I don't know a damn thing about it other than we bought it. We purchased it to test it to see whether it might be applicable for a law enforcement function, and that's the status it remains in."
McCausland says he's unaware if the department has applied for a COA, and the FAA says it does not comment on applications, but the department can definitely not use it without a COA.
"Any public agency, be-it federal, state, and local law enforcement has to get a certificate of authorization," says Les Dorr, a representative for the FAA. "They can't operate it—it'd be for recreational use only. Even if they wanted to use it, they'd need to get a COA."
According to E-mails sent to MuckRock investigator Shawn Musgrave, there "have been at least two occasions in the past when personnel of Maine State Police units have taken the initiative to research and propose the possible acquisition by the Maine State Police of a drone." In both of those instances, "no such vehicle was actually acquired by our agency."
According to an invoice from Parrot, the Parrot AR.Drone2.0 and an extra battery was purchased on January 18 by Nicholas Grass of the Maine State Police Department for a total of $364.93. In a separate document listing the "pros" and "cons" of purchasing the drones, an employee of the department writes that the drone is a good purchase.
The drone's "digital cameras are crystal clear" and it has the "ability to record while flying and take still photos … great reconnaissance tool."
Listed in the "cons" list of purchasing the drone are its are the drone's 15 minute flight time and the fact that "it's a 'toy.'" The officer writes "it's a 'toy,' which probably wasn't made to be used for Tactical missions (to that I say, 'why not?')."
Earlier this week, a bill was introduced in the Maine statehouse that would regulate state agency use of drones and would require law enforcement to get a warrant to use them.