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A new study is proposing to examine how police departments might best use drones for domestic law enforcement. The University of North Dakota wants to fly up to four unmanned aircraft on behalf of police in 16 counties in northeast North Dakota, industry magazine Aviation Week reported.

The university will study how useful drones are to police, what procedures and policies are needed, and whether fixed- or rotary-wing aircraft are best. The school has earned Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) approval for two of the four applications it submitted and is waiting to hear about the other two. Researchers plan to perform FAA-required flight demonstrations in mid-September. 

North Dakota is also pioneering a particular method of obtaining the green light from the FAA for deploying drones. Researchers applied for FAA certificates of authorization to operate small unmanned aerial systems during the day, at or below 400 feet, within a specified area. It should be easier to get approval for such a certificate, compared to getting an emergency certificate of authorization for a specific mission, Aviation Week wrote. The Mesa County Sheriff's Department in Colorado, one of the few U.S. police departments that use drones, secured FAA approval this way. 

The University of North Dakota plans to keep its drones in unmarked SUVs at a central location. Police officers will be able to call a dispatcher to ask an operator to drive the SUV to them. One of the researchers, Alan Frazier, envisioned that SUVs carrying drones would someday drive around in patrols, waiting for calls to respond.

The impetus for starting the program came from an unusual case for the Grand Forks County Sheriff's Department. In 2010, Grand Forks officers were trying to arrest a "heavily armed farmer suspected of stealing cows" when they called for support from a customs and border control Predator B drone. The FAA initially refused the request. 

Since then, Congress has called on the FAA to develop regulations for domestic drones by 2015, clearing the way for this study. It also appears the borders drone did eventually come to the aid of officers trying to arrest the cow thief.

Sources: Aviation WeekLos Angeles Times

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