Why does a two-bit Alabama town have two spy drones?

The town of Gadsden, Ala., has 100,000 inhabitants and two UAVs. The police chief says he has no idea why, even though they've been there for two years. He claims they've never been used.

The Gadsden Wasps look something like this. Screenshot: Chris Matyszczyk/CNET

I would like to quote from the Web site of the City of Gadsden, Ala. (pop. 104,303):

Gadsden is the perfect place to live, raise a family and retire, while you enjoy relaxation, historical and scenic sites, cultural events and all sorts of entertainment and activities.

Why, then, would anyone in this perfect place have ordered two surveillance drones (in 2010, apparently) for use by the police department?

A similar question appears to have occupied the sleuths at the Gadsden Times. For in an act of concerned public-spiritedness, they confronted police chief John Crane with this disturbing information.

The newspaper got its first clue when the FAA released a list of agencies it has certified to fly drones and unmanned aerial vehicles following a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit. The Gadsden police department apparently turned up on that list.

Chief Crane didn't try to suggest that the drones didn't belong to his department, but, say, to Batman. No, he rushed to reassure the populace that the drones don't carry offensive weaponry. They were merely, you know, spy drones.

In fact they are Wasp Micro Air Vehicles, which merely have a wingspan of 72cm. Or 28.34 inches.

These things can only fly for three-quarters of a mile. Indeed, they are little more than the paper planes you made at school. You can launch them by hand.

Alright, so they are spy drones. But they're still fun.

Chief Crane is a little disturbed, however. He told the Gadsden Times: "I, for one, am very mindful of privacy issues."

Oh, but that's very old hat, Chief. If it's out there, you should be able to film it, listen to it, copy it or just grab it. Out west here, we call it the Google Principle.

You might wonder what a couple of these toy planes costs. Well, these two set the good people of Gadsden back a mere $150,000. This money came out of a federal law enforcement grant.

What doesn't seem to have come out is a drone from its box. The Wasps have never been used, or so Chief Crane says.

"Like anything else, it's a tool," he told the Gadsden Times. "If we don't have a specific need for this tool, why break it out of the box?"

Gadsden Police Department does have many specialist units that ensure local safety. For example, it has 3 bomb technicians and its Web site does offer this important caution: "NEVER PICK UP OR DISTURB A BOMB OR SUSPICIOUS PACKAGE!!! SOME BOMBS MAY DETONATE WHEN PICKED UP!!"

But can one really imagine that anyone believed that this town really needed not one spy drone, but two? Yes, perhaps they may have been on special offer, but that can be of little import to those who might be spied upon.

Surely the local community will now be asking questions as to who it was who thought spying on them was such a wonderful idea.

 

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