Sheriff Gregory Ahern is seeking a grant to purchase unmanned aerial drones to provide video and infrared surveillance in police, fire and rescue settings.
"We're not getting this thing on Tuesday," Ahern told his advisory committee in a briefing Monday afternoon.
But the sheriff's office has already done preliminary tests of a four-pound drone that could carry a camera to provide live video or an infrared device to track the heat of bodies, fires or possibly the lights of indoor pot growing operations.
The device, which would cost $50,000 to $100,000, would be remotely controlled by an operator on the ground and hover over crime or fire scenes.
Ahern says the unit has a wing span of less than four feet and would be operated by an individual on the ground with a "line of sight" on the drone.
"This would be less expensive, more valuable and have more uses (than a helicopter)," said Ahern, adding that a helicopter cost $3 million buy and upwards of $300 an hour to operate.
"This could deploy from the trunk of a car within minutes, not hours, in emergency situations," Ahern commented. "This would not be a patrol tool. It would be a mission-specific tool for evaluating and testing for specific incidents. If we do this, we have to have permission from the FAA defined for each specific type of mission such as search and rescue, fires or for explosive ordinances teams to take photos of suspicious devices."
Ahern says the drones could be used for officer safety and for tactical missions such as search warrants.
"We could use it [the drone] to check for dogs, children playing or people in a yard so we could adjust our approach," he said. "We would be able to utilize this for a suspect fleeing on foot or in a car."
If Ahern's plan moves forward, Alameda County would become a pioneer in the deployment of small -- and, so far, nonlethal -- versions of the drones that the military is using in Afghanistan.
"We would have in place policies and procedures to include privacy and rights along with safety protocols prior to deployment [of the drone]," said Ahern. "We do everything in our power to protect the freedoms of the people in our community and we take great pride in that priority and do whatever we can to maintain that trust."
The county's plans are the tip of an iceberg that Congress set in motion when it passed the Federal Aviation Administration reauthorization act earlier this year.
That act required the FAA to create rules to permit the deployment of civilian drones weighing 25 pounds or less - not just for law enforcement but for any business that wants eyes in the skies.
News sources that followed the development estimate that 30,000 civilian drones could be flying U.S. skies by 2020.
The American Civil Liberties Union has criticized the move toward civilian drones.
“This bill would push the nation willy-nilly toward an era of aerial surveillance without any steps to protect the traditional privacy that Americans have always enjoyed and expected,” the ACLU has said.
The FAA is supposed to write rules governing the use of civilian drones for law enforcement by the end of 2012. At that point the county will apply for a "certificate of authorization" or a permit spelling out what sorts of uses would be permitted.
Sheriff's department officials said Alameda County could be the first jurisdiction in California to deploy drones and among the first nationwide.
Members of the sheriff's advisory committee asked Monday if the drones would be armed. They were told no.
Police surveillance technology has been in the news.
A recent Wall Street Journal article focused on how San Leandro police use an automated license plate tracking technology to capture and keep information about law-abiding citizens at the same time they use it to fight crime.