Law enforcement unveils controversial surveillance aircraft

Richland County unmanned surveillance helicopter in action / Mike Coleman

COLUMBIA (WACH) -- Richland County and Columbia police unveiled helicopter drones equipped with cameras Tuesday that law enforcement says will aid in fighting crime. But opponents argue the drones could be used for spying on the public.

Sheriff Leon Lott announced the new Ariel Intelligence and Response equipment. A.I.R. is a small radio-controlled helicopter mounted with a camera that sends back a live picture to the operator on the ground. It is designed for search, surveillance and intelligence gathering. Read the department's press release here.

Officials showed off the new gadget in front of cameras at a training facility in northeast Columbia and introduced Deputy Marcus Kim as the man who is heading up Richland County's drone program. Lott says Kim has been a professional RC helicopter pilot for 13 years.

Lott says the program will give the department a new edge in fighting crime. Opponents say depending on how it's used it could violate citizens' Constitutional rights by allowing law enforcement to invade private property and conduct searches without probable cause or a warrant.

The American Civil Liberties Union has fought against the use of drones in cities like Miami and Houston, arguing because of its inconspicuous size and ability to view private property a search warrant would need to be obtained before police use them.

"This is only going to be used for special operations that we'll have a mission for," Lott said. "Its flight time is not that long where we can just take it and fly it around, so it'll have a particular mission. So just to ride around looking for something with this particular aircraft is not going to happen."

The Richland County Sheriff's Department also has other non-traditional equipment in its arsenal including an armored personnel carrier and helicopter.

According to Columbia Police Chief Randy Scott, his department's drone will "aid Columbia Police in conducting aerial surveillance" during investigations and incidents; he also said via press release it will be used to monitor city parks.

Scott said "Columbia Air-1" cost $4,000 paid through seized asset proceeds and it has a flight time between 30 and 40 minutes.

What do you think about law enforcement using unmanned helicopters equipped with cameras? Is it a crime fighting tool or a potential infringement of your Constitutional rights? Leave a comment below to weigh in with your thoughts.