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Unmanned Drone Is Coming to Texas

HOUSTON (CN) - A Texas sheriff plans to launch an unmanned drone in January. The ShadowHawk will not be armed with weapons, but will be equipped with blue flashing lights, a camera and an infrared sensor, according to Montgomery County Sheriff's Chief Deputy Randy McDaniel. Montgomery County is north of Houston.

The Montgomery County sheriff purchased the drone with a $300,000 grant from the Department of Homeland Security.

The ShadowHawk was made by Conroe, Texas-based Vanguard Defense Industries. Conroe is the seat of Montgomery County, which is immediately north of Houston's Harris County.

The ShadowHawk weighs 50 pounds, is 79 inches long and can fly as high as 8,000 feet. The drone is operated remotely by a laptop computer system, runs off a mixture of oil and gas, and can stay airborne for more than an hour, depending on weather conditions.

Vanguard Defense Industries CEO Michael Buscher said his company manufactures and sells the unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) to commercial and law-enforcement customers, but most have been sold for military uses.

Vanguard's military UAVs can be equipped with 40-millimeter grenade launchers, and fully- and semi-automatic small arms, according to the company's website.

Though Montgomery County's ShadowHawk will not have weapons, Buscher said Vanguard is developing a system to arm its law enforcement UAVs with nonlethal munitions.

"Despite the press the aircraft has received, the Law Enforcement (LE) version is not what we would deem as a 'weaponized' system," Buscher wrote in an email to Courthouse News Service. "Within the next 60 days our R&D division will complete testing on a less-lethal firing system that can be integrated in the LE variants. This system will include provision of a unit which will be capable of firing 37mm or 40mm less-lethal munitions and not high explosives. These munitions will include tear gas canisters, flares, smoke, flash-bangs, etc."

Buscher directed Courthouse News Service to the website of an Ontario, Canada-based business, Police Ordnance Co., for an idea of what kinds of munitions its law enforcement UAVs will be capable of carrying.

Police Ordnance calls itself "the premier law enforcement products manufacturer and distributor serving the law enforcement professional worldwide."

Through its website, Police Ordnance sells tear gas, bean-bag projectiles, baton and sting-ball projectiles in 37mm and 40mm cartridges, and munitions designed to deliver a "combination payload of flash-bang charge and smoke charge" upon impact.

McDaniel said the Montgomery County Sheriff's Department "would definitely look into what the capabilities are" once Vanguard Defense Industries works out the kinks in its law-enforcement UAVs firing systems.

For now, the sheriff's department will use the ShadowHawk for "mission-specific issues," such as searching for people lost in Sam Houston National Forest, in situations involving hazardous materials, or to provide support for people on the ground fighting a forest fire, McDaniel said.

"The ShadowHawk can see through heavy smoke using its optic system to find hot spots, fire breaks and fire lines. And can help the ground crews figure out where to go," Vanguard CEO Buscher said.

The sheriff's office has been working with Vanguard on the ShadowHawk project for 3 years, after it was approached by Buscher, according to the Houston Chronicle.

Deputy McDaniel told the Chronicle there has not been any major opposition to the drone since the plans were unveiled in late October. But questions about its surveillance capabilities have stirred privacy concerns.

McDaniel told the Chronicle last week: "We're not about spying on the residents of this county. We are about putting criminals in jail and putting a stop to criminal activity. We have better things to do, and spying is not our role."

Buscher told Courthouse News that using the ShadowHawk is "no different from having a manned helicopter."

"They've been using helicopters since the 1940s. So cities and municipalities have been dealing with these issues for decades. You still have to get warrants and follow protocol you would for a manned helicopter. A lot of people don't realize a helicopter can conduct surveillance from high altitudes where you can't see it."

Deputy McDaniel said warrants are not legally required for the ShadowHawk to conduct surveillance.

"Air space is just that. Just as a news helicopter can fly over your house and poke a camera outside your window and record you in your yard, our helicopter can do that. There's no requirement for aerial surveillance," McDaniel said.

As for the ShadowHawk's potential to be equipped with nonlethal munitions, University of Houston professor of criminal procedure Adam Gershowitz said the mere existence of the technology does not raise any red flags.

"I can't think of any U.S. Supreme Court precedent that says you can't do it. I don't think there are any constitutional rules to stop it. I do think it would be a good idea for Montgomery County to put specific guidelines in place as to how it will be used," Gershowitz said.

The sheriff's department is training a two-man team to use the ShadowHawk. McDaniel said the department has had to work around the deputies' schedules to get the training done.

The training program is a "180-hour, FAA-based training program that includes physicals, as anyone who applies for a pilot license has to meet sight and hearing requirements," Buscher said.

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