DUBLIN -- It looks like a cross between a spider and a minimalist ottoman. It sounds like an electric shaver. It's officially marketed as an unmanned aerial system, but you'd know it better as a drone.

Sgt. J.D. Nelson of the Alameda County Sheriff's Department wishes he'd had one 23 years ago.

"In 1989 when we had the earthquake here, and the Cypress Structure collapsed, I was the guy who crawled through the (unstable) Cypress Structure searching for people and bodies," Nelson said. "It sure would have been nice to have an unmanned aerial system search that instead of me, or people like me."

Nelson's wish may soon come true. On Saturday, two small, spindly drones -- not to be confused with the larger, weaponized military grade drones being used overseas in the war on terror -- were test-flown behind the Santa Rita Jail as part of the multiagency Urban Shield training exercise. Powered by four small propellers drawing from a battery pack only slightly larger than a candy bar, the drones took turns wafting up and down, back and forth, all the while beaming high-definition images back to their control console.

Autopilot? No problem. Self-landing? A breeze.

"We would like to purchase one -- and I say one, at least for now -- and see how it works," Nelson said.

James Hill, whose company built Saturday's drones, would like to make a deal.


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Operating a helicopter costs "about $1,500 an hour," said Hill, president of AirCover Integrated Solutions, "where these aircraft are, on lease, about $2,200 a month. So the cost saving's huge."

Nelson put the hourly cost of operating a helicopter between $400 and $600. That's still far in excess of the operational costs of flying a drone powered by a rechargeable battery. The drones test-flown Saturday also have a lower sticker price -- between $40,000 and $60,000, depending on how they're outfitted, Hill said. Nelson estimated a police helicopter's cost at $3 million.

And that's before the benefit of sparing a law enforcement officer or first responder the need to confront what Hill calls a "dirty, dull or dangerous situation."

Still, it could be a while before you see drones buzzing through the skies of Alameda County. First, the department would have to receive Federal Aviation Administration authorization. Then, it would have to address privacy concerns expressed by citizens rights groups. Members of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, Critical Resistance and the American Civil Liberties Union gathered on the steps of Oakland City Hall on Oct. 18 to raise concerns after Sheriff Gregory Ahern announced his interest in buying a drone.

"If we get one, obviously a policy has to be written up on when we're going to use it and those types of things," Nelson said. "Very similar to what we use with our bomb squad equipment and SWAT team. We would use it as an eye in the sky. It's not meant for random patrolling."

Law enforcement agencies in Seattle and Mesa County, Colo., currently use the technology.

Hill said his company's drones have value beyond law enforcement, from bridge inspection, search and rescue, and surveying crops on large farms. Nelson kept coming back to the human factor.

"It has the potential to change law enforcement," he said. "Any time you send something in (harm's way) that isn't a person, doesn't put a person at risk, be it an unmanned aerial system, be it a canine, be it a robot on tracks, if you're going to save lives, why wouldn't you do it?"

Contact Gary Peterson at 925-952-5053. Follow him at twitter.com/garyscribe.