After Florida Bans Using Drones to Monitor Citizens, Miami Beach Police Introduce Miniature Camera Blimp

After Florida Bans Using Drones to Monitor Citizens, Miami Beach Police Introduce Miniature Camera Blimp

In 2015, Florida passed the Freedom From Unwanted Surveillance Act, which forbids police from using drones to surveil citizens. Miami Beach police seem to think they've come up with a way around that.

The device, called a "tethered aerostat," is basically a miniature blimp with a camera gimbal on its underside, so basically, a less maneuverable drone. Nonetheless, the city claims it doesn't violate the law, with city manager Jimmy Morales citing terrorism concerns at large gatherings and referring to the device as "provid[ing] an ideal vantage point in an unobtrusive manner, with a sleek, yet friendly look." 

Interestingly, several sites that sell tethered aerostats refer to them by names such as "lighter-than-air drones," and whether or not the Miami Beach device violates the letter of the law, it sure seems to violate the spirit of it. The department has already deployed the device at least once, using it to monitor an Orange Bowl party on December 28. It's currently unclear if its legal standing will be challenged. 

Lead image by Florida Keys Public Library, used under Creative Commons.

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12 Comments

Xander Cesari's picture

So I guess that means I could buy a tethered aerostat and fly it around an airport? Or in National Parks? Yeahhhh I didn't think so.

Tosh Cuellar's picture

You'd be hard pressed to fly one anywhere, because as the name suggests, it is tethered. It is not a RC vehicle, it is a blimp tethered to a large platform on the ground. The military and law enforcement use them like mobile watchtowers or camera towers in places where there is no time / necessity / infrastructure to put up the traditional structures.

Tosh Cuellar's picture

I would be surprised if the state determined that this was a violation of the FFUSA because the first line of the act defines a "drone" as a powered aerial vehicle, which most aerostats are not. Included in that definition are:

1) Can fly autonomously or be piloted remotely; (the ones I've seen used can do neither, they are simply blimps tethered to a ground station, the only thing capable of being controlled is the camera)

2) uses aerodynamic forces (thrust) to provide lift; (again, the ones I have seen do not have any mechanical parts to create thrust or lift, only the tether for restraint and the camera system)

(Note: I did find a better picture of the one being used in MB and there does appear to be a small fan/rotor on the tail of it. If that is the case and it is for anything beyond maintaining directional control of the blimp, that would certainly fall within the legal definition provided in the act.)

The main reason(s) it likely won't be ruled illegal however, are the exemptions within the act itself, to include, countering the risk of terrorism and use with reasonable suspicion to prevent imminent danger or damage.

The ones that I have seen used first hand are not small, covert, nimble, or even particularly mobile, because as the name suggests, it is tethered, to a ground station and usually accompanied by another vessel (trailer/vehicle) from which the camera is monitored.

That a company that sells them would market it as a drone is absurd to me and bordering on willful misrepresentation. A remote controlled blimp, like the ones used at stadiums and sports venues, should certainly be categorized as a drone. In regards to the larger, immobile, tethered stations, the only reason I could imagine for calling it a drone, would be to capitalize on the buzz (pun intended) of drone popularity. That would be like . . . I don't know. . . calling a powered, wheeled vehicle a hoverboard.

There is no legal definition for "drone" with the FAA. The FAA classifies them as a UAV or Unmanned Arial Vehicle. This is definitely that. The only reason they may be able to get away with it is because of the tether. Technically if its still touching the ground they can argue that there was no take off and it didnt enter airspace.

Tosh Cuellar's picture

Interesting, I did not know there was no legal definition per the FAA, and I agree it is certainly classified as a UAV.

The "definition" I was citing was straight from the legal text of the FFUSA itself (https://www.flsenate.gov/Laws/Statutes/2018/934.50) which is what this entire article was in reference to. So while there is not an FAA definition, in order for this to become law specifically regarding "drones" they had to determine/define what it is.

I don't disagree that it is a UAV, but that is not how drone is defined in this statute.

Although I defended tethered aerostats in a broad sense and based on my personal experience with them, I'm not necessarily defending this particular one. Upon further review, based on the size of it and the fact that it has mechanism to provide thrust, I actually think it would be classified as a drone per the definition provided in the FFUSA.

I'm still not confident anything will be done about it though, because the built-in exceptions in the act can be interpreted pretty loosely, particularly the anti-terrorism and public safety clauses.

Rob Mitchell's picture

Looks like it's got an Osmo lashed up under it ;)

I've seen them used before 'drones' were a thing, hanging cameras over events to keep an eye on things.
Even contemplated one years ago to get around the laws of not flying an proper RC helicopter over built up areas. There was nothing to say a kid couldn't have a helium balloon in the city and nothing to say the balloon couldn't be bigger and on a longer string.

Mark Harris's picture

Tethering is a common loophole for getting around drone regulations. Trail a piece of string, and suddenly you're in the same legal space as a kid with a kite (who is not allowed to fly near the airport either).

Mark Harris's picture

I'm curious about the thumbs down.
Are you disagreeing with the facts, or do you think I'm endorsing using the loophole (which I'm not) ?

Why use an inflammatory image as the main one? Clearly, that blimp in the main image is used for scientific purposes or is a historical picture? And is a massive blimp! Yet the ACTUAL picture is a small blimp that says Police all over it. Sensationalism at it's finest!

Spy Black's picture

Much easier pop out of the air tho. ;-)

Considering the large amount of older people in Florida a blimp seems like a better choice :-)

Robert Callahan's picture

...so, a drone.