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Baltimore Police surveillance plane flying lower to avoid cloud cover, prompting some complaints over noise

Cloudy weather is forcing the recently launched Baltimore Police surveillance plane to fly at lower altitudes than expected, prompting a handful of complaints that it is too noisy, a department spokeswoman said.

The plane typically flies at 9,500 feet but can be forced down to 3,000 feet if there is heavy cloud coverage, police spokeswoman Lindsey Eldridge said Wednesday.

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Complaints about noise from the Cessna plane have come in the past couple of days and number less than a dozen, Eldridge said. It has been launched over the past two weeks from Martin State Airport.

It’s part of a six-month-long pilot project to determine if the surveillance footage captured by the plane can assist police in solving serious crimes. The $3.7 million project is operated by Persistent Surveillance Systems and privately funded by the philanthropists Laura and John Arnold through their organization, Arnold Ventures.

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The program, which had been previously launched in 2016 with no public disclosure, has been fought by critics who say it infringes peoples’ privacy. The American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland argued in a lawsuit that the plane is a threat to the right to privacy and free association under the First and Fourth amendments of the U.S. Constitution.

A judge refused to block the plane from beginning its flights as scheduled.

The technology is capable of capturing images of 32 square miles of the city for a minimum of 40 hours a week.

Some city council members have questioned the need for the plane, noting that it does not fly at night, when many shootings and homicide occur.

The plane typically flies around 9,000 feet but on some recent, cloudy days, it must go below the cloud cover to capture its images, which has caused a low, noticeable roar of an engine across the city on recent days. The rumble caused some people to post about the noise on Twitter.

“So this noise is the spy plane huh,” wrote one Twitter user Tuesday. “SO LOUD. my god so loud.”

On Wednesday, data from Flightradar24.com, a site that displays flight tracking information including altitude, showed that the plane was hovering at 4,300 to 5,300 feet when the sky appeared generally clear. Its morning tour had been flown at 7,100 to 8,100 feet, at one point reaching 9,000 feet, the site’s data shows.

Eldridge said the department is taking complaints against the program seriously.

She said it is possible for the plane "to reduce its power to just what is needed to stay aloft making it quieter than most planes flying by.”

Baltimore Sun reporter Justin Fenton contributed to this article.

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