Drones To Patrol Skies Over Republican Convention

Security-conscious authorities will be using a wide variety of devices and technology to monitor the skies, streets and waterways around Tampa during next week's Republican National Convention. Cameras, helicopters and law enforcement officers all will be employed to help look for suspicious activity and possible threats.

Add to that mix one more technology: drones.

This will mark the first time unmanned aerial vehicles will patrol the skies over a national convention, according to an engineer with a Naples company that builds and will operate the drones.

The vehicle, called an Aether Aero, is an eight-bladed vertical takeoff platform that will provide intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance to government agencies, according to Curt Winter, an engineer with United Drones.

The 41/2-foot-wide Aether Aero, which resembles a small helicopter, can fly up to 4,000 feet high and, with a specially built battery, can operate up to four hours at a time, Winter said. It is equipped with a 109x optical zoom camera, can lift up to 50 pounds and is so light it can be picked up with two fingers, according to Chris Knott, United Drones' director of corporate development.

In addition to the unmanned aerial vehicles, United Drones will operate several unmanned ground vehicles, called Wraiths, at the convention. The Wraiths can travel up to 65 mph "and climb just about anything," said Winter.

The Wraiths, also built by United Drones, have the capability of carrying surveillance cameras and even lethal and non-lethal weapons.

"They are fully autonomous backup units," Winter said of the Wraiths. "They are designed to follow certain agencies out into the field and, if they get into trouble, be activated by a command center and provide instant backup."

Winter would not say which government agencies will use the aerial drones or what will be targeted by their sensors, nor who will use the Wraiths or how they will be equipped.

But police are expecting thousands of protesters to descend on the area for the convention, scheduled to kick off Sunday night with a party for media and delegates at Tropicana Field in St. Petersburg. The first sessions are scheduled for Monday and protests are expected throughout the event, set to run through Aug. 30, weather permitting.

Thursday, a new YouTube video, purportedly from the hacking collective known as Anonymous, surfaced, calling on protesters to disable surveillance cameras, jam police radio systems and tear down barricades. That video comes on the heels of one posted on YouTube last week saying that peaceful protest is passe.

United Drones has received waivers from the Federal Aviation Administration to operate the drones, said Winter.

Knott said the drones will have "see-and-avoid" technology that will allow the drones to avoid hitting one another or crashing into buildings or other aircraft.

Weather won't be an issue for the Aether Aero, said Winter. The drones can fly at night, and even through a hurricane, something that could come into play with Tropical Storm Isaac projected to become Hurricane Isaac.

"We will be there, basically Sunday through the end of convention," Winter said. "We could fly in a hurricane. It is gyro-stabilized."

United Drones was formed about two years ago, said Winter and has about 15 employees.

The convention is a great chance to showcase what drones can do for both military and civilian uses, Knott said.

"They have a known and practical application with law enforcement and the military, but there are a number of other potential users: search and rescue, tracking algae blooms or oil spills, highway safety, wildlife migration," Knott said.

Copyright 2012 - Tampa Tribune, Fla.

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