Last Friday, near a cornfield in North Dakota, four underage men were pulled over under suspicion of drunk driving. The four men hopped out of their car and bolted into the cornfield. Grand Forks police didn't follow them: Instead, they put a drone in the sky.
"One of them was walking through the cornfield. It took about three minutes to find him," Alan Frazier, Deputy Sheriff in charge of the Grand Forks Police Department's unmanned aerial vehicle system unit told me. "The other was found on a second flight, after maybe 25 minutes."
The two other suspects were apprehended at another time—they had the unlucky distinction of becoming the first Americans ever tracked down and arrested with the help of a police quadcopter.
That it happened around Grand Forks is not a surprise.
Two years ago, a cattle rancher near there was arrested with the help of a Department of Homeland Security Predator drone, becoming the first man arrested in the US with the help of a drone. These four men become the first to be arrested in the US with the help of a local police drone (as of 2013, there were roughly 24 police agencies using drones).
Two weeks ago, in something of a coincidence, I sat in a conference room in Grand Forks as Frazier pitched me and several other journalists on the force's use of drones.
To start off the presentation, he pulled up this video, made by AeroVironment, the company that makes the Qube, the drone that Frazier and his team and several other police departments around the country use:
Frazier called the video, in which a fugitive is tracked down with a drone, "a little Hollywood," but that's essentially what happened there, last week. The Grand Forks Police Department is the first in the United States to get Federal Aviation Administration approval to fly at night, and last weekend's mission was the very first time the department had ever used the Qube at night on a mission.
"There's a misnomer that these are covert spy tools," Frazier told me when I was in Grand Forks. "We utilize them for events that are already occurring. We look for felony suspects, we do further analysis, we use them for totally overt missions. There's no plans to use them covertly."
Does he have a reasonable expectation of privacy? If so, then we'd seek a search warrant.
"That's not to say they can't be used for covert missions, but they haven't been," he added. A video he showed us pitched the Qube as a "powerful surveillance tool."
Tim Schuh, the police officer most often tasked with actually flying the thing, says it's been used about a dozen times in the last year—only once while actually looking for a suspect (before this last case). "We're not flying over downtown looking for trouble," he said.
Still, the department seems a bit gung-ho about drones in a way that many others are not. Frazier balked at the idea that the department should or would get a warrant before flying one. (California Gov. Jerry Brown just vetoed a bill that would have required police in the state to get a warrant before using a drone).
When I asked Frazier if he thinks a warrant should be necessary, he said, "absolutely not. We do a quick litmus test—'does he have a reasonable expectation of privacy?' If so, then we'd seek a search warrant."
So far, the drone had been flown on 11 different occasions, only once to search for a fugitive (it wasn't successful that time). It's been used to monitor flooding, look for missing persons, take videos of a sexual assault scene, take photos of a murder scene, and once to get photos of a traffic accident scene.
After telling us about the drone program, Frazier took me outside, where Schuh was on hand to show off the Qube's capabilities. The Qube lives in the back of a police SUV that's marked "UAS Unit." Schuh set it up, and the Qube, a quadcopter not much bigger than the white Phantom drones that have become so popular with hobbyists, took off and immediately began sending footage back down to the ground station.
At this point, the process has become routine. Maybe that's why, when those four men ran off into the cornfield, police didn't chase them, Frazier said. Instead, the drone was called in and found them.
"From there, it was just like any other foot pursuit," he told me. "You chase them down and take them to jail."