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When Baraboo Police Officer Jeremy Drexler saw a news report earlier this month about a 5-year-old girl that went missing after falling into the water in Richland County, he knew he could help.

He was familiar with that portion of the Wisconsin River, located near a boat landing in Gotham. Some of the waterway is dense with stumps and other debris, making it difficult to access by boat.

Drexler, a remote control hobbyist, had a special tool that he knew could help with the search. He would provide the eyes in the sky through an unmanned aircraft known as a drone.

Although the device belongs to Drexler, not the Baraboo Police Department, he volunteered to use it for the search. Once it was airborne, he took a quick pass over the river.

As the drone soared overhead, a high-definition camera mounted to the bottom of the aircraft transmitted video to the screen of Drexler’s iPad. He looked down at one of the boats that was dragging the river and realized something the driver couldn’t have known.

“He was dragging a sand dune,” Drexler said. “So he was essentially wasting time.”

Drones are becoming increasingly popular, not just with law enforcement, but with other government agencies, businesses and private citizens.

The online retail giant Amazon.com has announced plans to develop a drone delivery service, and has established development centers in the United States, the United Kingdom and Israel.

Earlier this month, Amazon gained approval from the Federal Aviation Administration to conduct limited drone flights for research and training purposes. The FAA – which is in the process of developing new rules for drones – has granted waivers for a number of commercial uses, such as agriculture and surveying.

Big help, or big brother?

Eight months ago, the Chippewa County Sheriff’s Department became one of the first law enforcement agencies in Wisconsin to purchase a drone. So far, three county employees have been trained to use the device, which cost about $1,700.

“We can fly it over buildings, we can check license plates, the list goes on and on and on,” Sheriff James Kowalczyk said. “Our SWAT team could use it on just about every SWAT call we go on.”

He said the department must develop policies specific to drone use before it amps up its implementation. The new tool might be most helpful in search and rescue situations, he said, as well as drug surveillance related to marijuana grow operations.

But in the latter circumstance, Kowalcyk said, investigators must acquire a search warrant prior to sending the device into the air. He said his department has no interest in becoming “big brother” in the sky, and takes the privacy rights of citizens seriously.

In 2013, Wisconsin lawmakers passed a bill that restricts the use of drones, and requires law enforcement agencies to obtain a warrant before using the devices to gather evidence. The law, 2013 Wisconsin Act 213, allows law enforcement to use drones in emergency situations, such as search and rescue, prisoner escapes, or to prevent harm to an individual.

Evidence obtained in violation of the law would not be permissible to use in court proceedings.

The Wisconsin law makes the standards for drone use in aerial surveillance more stringent than those for manned aircraft. For example, the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources regularly conducts statewide aerial searches for large-scale marijuana grow operations, but no warrant is required.

The weaponization of drones also is prohibited under the state law, as is the private use of drones to record or photograph a person in an environment in which they have a reasonable expectation of privacy.

Although the Wisconsin branch of the American Civil Liberties Union initially championed the state law, its executive director later called the legislation weak, and said it would likely be challenged in court.

Not all states have laws specific to drones, and their increasing use is something that has privacy advocates concerned about potential Fourth Amendment violations.

“In the 1980s, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled people don’t have an expectation of privacy from overhead aerial surveillance, but these cases involved one-time flyovers,” said Hanni Fakhoury, a senior staff attorney with the Electronic Frontier Foundation. “Drones allow for consistent and persistent monitoring of a person, which raises distinct constitutional issues.”

The EFF sued the federal government for information about certifications and authorizations issued for domestic drone flights. The non-profit produced a map based on the documents it received, but Fakhoury said there likely have since been many more authorizations, and no one has a master list.

Drones here to stay

Back in Richland County this week, crews reopened the search for the girl who was lost along the Wisconsin River.

Drexler, the Baraboo officer, said although the use of a drone did not produce a positive outcome in that circumstance, he has seen a number of instances over the years in which the devices would have come in handy.

Often times, he said, people who have injured themselves while free-climbing rocks at Devil’s Lake State Park are unable to explain their exact location to dispatchers. A drone may help under those circumstances, and in other search and rescue operations, he said. But Drexler said he agrees there should be limitations on the use of drones in law enforcement operations.

“The state of Wisconsin deems this a police officer,” he said, gesturing toward one of the two drones in his collection. “I completely agree with putting restrictions on these things.”

While the legal details and privacy issues likely will be worked out in court, there is no doubt that drones are here to stay. As the number of private recreational users like Drexler continues to grow, drone prices have dropped to as little as $50 for some small models.

Still, it may be some time before drones become standard equipment for law enforcement agencies. Lt. Rob Sinden said the Baraboo Police Department has not considered whether a drone would be a valuable addition to the force.

“Although the devices can offer some great assistance in limited situations, we have not researched purchasing one as yet,” Sinden said.