‘A balancing act’: Maryland police drones aid in searches, crash investigations, but raise privacy concerns

The search for a missing Ellicott City man was stretching into a fifth day this summer. But when a volunteer launched his privately owned drone into the air over a densely wooded area of Columbia, a search party found the injured 44-year-old within minutes.

Howard County police say they envision more of those scenes unfolding in the future. Chief Lisa Myers announced plans this month to launch a one-year “field test” of three drones, which she hopes could help officers find missing children and scope out dangerous situations.

The suburban police department is the latest police agency in Maryland to embrace the potential of drones as the small, buzzing aircraft — often equipped with cameras and sensors — become more affordable and easier to use. But the rapid growth of the unmanned technology in law enforcement has also prompted concerns from privacy and civil liberties advocates, who worry that police will shift to more intrusive uses as they expand their drone programs.