Thursday, April 19, 2018
Public safety

Drones won't patrol Tampa during RNC, federal authorities say

TAMPA — Federal officials say unmanned drones will not be patrolling downtown's skies and streets during next week's Republican National Convention.

A Naples company planned to outfit small unmanned helicopters and ground vehicles with cameras and operate them on behalf of unnamed government agencies during the convention, according to a report that ran in the Tampa Tribune on Friday and on its website, TBO.com.

The part of the story about aerial drones patrolling the RNC is "completely inaccurate," Federal Aviation Administration spokeswoman Laura Brown said.

George Ogilvie, spokesman for the U.S. Secret Service, which is overseeing security, released this statement: "The Secret Service is not aware of any drones being used for the security planning of the national special security event."

United Drones president Curtis Winter, an engineer quoted in the Tribune article, said the company is developing unmanned aerial and ground drones for law enforcement but that the devices are not part of the security measures during the RNC.

"Our problem is everything we said was misconstrued," he said. "We talked about our capabilities, not what we're doing there."

Tribune executive editor Richard "Duke" Maas released this statement Friday:

"Federal and local officials responsible for RNC security have responded to our front-page story today, saying they have no plans to make use of drones over the skies of Tampa during the convention.

"This is in direct conflict with what Curt Winter, an employee of United Drones, told Tribune reporter Howard Altman on Thursday for his story. Then this morning, Mr. Winter called Mr. Altman back to say he misspoke regarding a statement he made yesterday about receiving a waiver from the FAA to operate the drones.

"Mr. Winter did not, however, back off from other statements he made on Thursday regarding the company's role in operating drones during the convention. We are continuing to report out the story."

Winter told the Tampa Bay Times on Friday that his company was planning to demonstrate its ground vehicles during the convention. But he said United Drones will not fly any drones during the RNC and did not ask the FAA for permission to fly them.

In response to Winter's statements to the Times, Maas wrote in an email: "Mr. Winter's comments to you are in direct conflict to those contained in Mr. Altman's typed notes from their conversation. I have reviewed those notes, and I am confident that our reporter did not misconstrue Mr. Winter's comments."

While military drones have become commonplace on the battlefield, they are restricted for civilian use. But even then the FAA doesn't generally allow "unmanned aircraft systems" — the FAA's preferred term for drones — in urban airspace, Brown said. Airspace around the Tampa Bay Times Forum will also be restricted during the RNC.

Times researcher John Martin contributed to this report.

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