The Hennepin County sheriff’s department will start using a drone this summer provided federal approval comes through.

Department spokesman Jon Collins said the drone will be used for “search and rescue” operations and run by volunteer special deputies.

Drones, unmanned aerial vehicles, cost a fraction of other overhead options, such as using the state patrol’s helicopter. Drone use already has proliferated among U.S. law enforcement agencies, bringing numerous privacy concerns along with it. While drones could be a safer, more efficient search option over a broad area or rough terrain than dozens of human volunteers, the devices have the capability to get into much deeper surveillance with digital monitoring and listening capabilities.

“Obviously, privacy is something that’s very important to us in this,” Collins said.

Drones require authorization from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and Hennepin County is awaiting word on its application.

The U.S. Customs and Border Patrol agency has been flying drones for several years in border areas. In 2013, the San Francisco-based Electronic Frontier Foundation reported drone usage across the country. The nonprofit, which says it’s “defending your rights in a digital world,” hasn’t conducted a more recent survey. The organization had to sue in 2012 to get information from the FAA about applications for drone licenses.

Mark Thompson, who oversees the public safety departments at the county, said administrators were aware that the sheriff was going to start using the devices. “Drones are a relatively inexpensive technology that can be deployed to survey accident, hostage or crime scenes to provides video/ intelligence information to responding officers,” he said.

Drone issues already are flying at the Legislature this session with lawmakers looking at regulations regarding when, where and by whom they can be flown and for what purposes.


Twitter: @rochelleolson