Underwater Drones Giving More Eyes to Police Harbor Unit as Searches Grow
The New York Times
By AL BAKER
December 4, 2011
With President Obama in town last Wednesday, things were busy for the New York Police Department’s Harbor Unit. Federal security agents were disseminating lists of city locations that had to be swept for bombs, cleared and guarded.
The New York Police Department’s Harbor Unit demonstrating one of its remote-operated vehicles in the Gowanus Canal.
Ruth Fremson/The New York Times
That meant that coastal areas near touchdown points for Marine One, the presidential helicopter, demanded extra inspection. Police divers splashed down to scrutinize underwater sections of piers and seawalls for improvised explosive devices. Radiological sweeps were done. Each of the bridges spanning waters that Mr. Obama’s motorcade might cross got a top-to-bottom going over.
All of that underwater security has resulted in an increasing reliance on a relatively new tactical weapon for the police: an unmanned submersible drone, often referred to as a remote-operated vehicle, or R.O.V.
The remote-operated vehicle.
Ruth Fremson/The New York Times
It is the Harbor Unit’s version of the mirrored device used by their colleagues on land to check for explosives under vehicles’ chassis. The department has six of these underwater drones, similar to those in use by the United States military and by oil companies with offshore operations.
Four, valued at $75,000 each, were acquired by the police in 2007, with federal grant money from the Urban Area Security Initiative. The police acquired two more sophisticated drones a year later with federal port security grant program money, for $120,000 apiece.
On Thursday, aboard the Anthony Sanchez, the largest of the Harbor Unit’s 34 vessels — it is named for a police officer killed on duty in 1997 — Capt. Anthony J. Russo directed his six-member crew to demonstrate the abilities of one of the drones, affectionately and perhaps unimaginatively called “No. 1” by the officers.
To do it, Detective Robert Harris, a boat pilot and diver, steered the 55-foot boat away from its dock at the Brooklyn Army Terminal. He passed some industrial sites and a derelict building at the water’s edge. He stopped alongside the rusted hull of a mammoth tanker, which is moored there and is now used to mix concrete. The little yellow R.O.V. — a 16-pound submersible with lights and sonar — was plopped into the 50-something-degree water, and off it went, tethered to a 100-foot cable running into the boat’s cabin.
There, Detective William P. Devine, a tall, lanky officer who is a scuba diver and the unofficial master of the R.O.V., sat at a table in the cabin, with a black briefcase before him that serves as the drone’s control pad and brain. He worked a toggle to maneuver the device and watched the images its camera beamed back, showing the barnacled bottom of the ship. The tether, or umbilical cord, carries 12-volt electricity to the R.O.V. and transports data and video images (in color) back up from the depths.
“This comes natural,” Detective Devine said, describing how he “flies” the R.O.V. along, almost like a helicopter but underwater. Sometimes if the currents are swift, the officers navigate their boat alongside the drone, moving in tandem as they sweep an area.
Detective Devine stares into the water, then back to the computer. His face is weathered, and somewhat tan even in late fall, like those of the other Harbor Unit officers who spend time outdoors. These officers are more fit than a typical officer and keep up rigorous training exercises. Their jobs demand they be dropped out of helicopters. They must be able to swim, manage themselves and their gear, help a partner and a possible victim and keep their head all at the same time. Many run triathlons while off duty.
Detective Devine has studied what biological or radiological weapons might look like, or where underwater explosives might be hidden under a boat. And if the problem is not explosives, it might be narcotics: traffickers will attach a load of drugs in PVC pipe and clip it along the keel under a giant tanker.
These days, counterterrorism duties make up about 50 percent of the Harbor Unit’s work, which has increased exponentially since 9/11. The unit still carries out rescue and recovery operations: aiding distressed boaters or retrieving bodies that float to the surface. The officers search for evidence in the silky muck of the river bottoms ringing the city. There, with usually zero visibility, they feel around for a gun or knife that some accused suspect has told a detective he tossed into the water to hide.
“I close my eyes, and your hands become your eyes,” Detective Harris said of those types of evidence searches.
But more and more, Detective Harris and others said, the mission is counterterrorism. These days, the briefing papers pour in from the Police Department’s Intelligence Division, through its Special Operations Division, sometimes at the rate of several bulletins a day: Check a suspicious boat under the Brooklyn Bridge; sweep an incoming cargo ship’s hull at the Coast Guard’s request; steam around by the Statue of Liberty to check on what a caller to 311 has described as an unidentified floating package. The officers of Harbor devise plans to deal with the myriad threats.
The officers realize just how critical they are in the defense of a port whose terrorism vulnerabilities have been well chronicled; roughly 10,000 cargo ships a year come into the port, with millions of containers landing on the Brooklyn piers.
In 2005, a Pakistani man, Uzair Paracha, was convicted in federal court of providing material aid and financial support to Al Qaeda terrorism. A law enforcement official said a concern arose during that investigation about a desire to establish a business in the city’s garment district as a way to ship items through the port to the city.
Police Commissioner Raymond W. Kelly, even before he took over for a second stint as commissioner in 2002, was concerned about the adequacy of the port’s contraband detection system — whether for drugs or the tools of terrorism. He cited the drones in a speech in April 2009 to the Council on Foreign Relations.
“We have a little submarine that we use to go under and take a look at ships that are coming in,” the commissioner said at the time. “We even board the Queen Mary, believe it or not, when it’s coming into the harbor.”
So far, the R.O.V.’s have never hit on a bomb. If they did, they would call in the Navy, said Detective Devine, a former Navy sailor himself. “We mark the location, get out of the water and call them,” he said.