The new spy plane keeping an eye on the city of Lancaster has drawn lots of attention, from the ire of privacy proponents to the praise of local law enforcement.

But what’s flown under the radar is that the high desert city’s aerial surveillance system is provided not by high-price local law enforcement but by a low-cost startup.

The system is run by a Lancaster company, Aero View LLC, which uses civilian pilots to fly a single-engine plane equipped with an off-the-shelf video camera, catching sight of traffic accidents before they’re reported and swooping in to surveil crime scenes.

Now that the system is up and running and getting good reviews from city leaders and the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department, Aero View executives say they’re ready to sell the service to cities across the country.

“We’ll invite city managers, people who control the budget, people who operate the law enforcement, whether it be the sheriff’s department or their own police,” said Steve McCarter, Aero View chief executive. “I think our main selling point is just to have people in and see how it works.”

Police departments have used planes and helicopters for aerial surveillance for decades, though usually for specific missions or emergency response. Several companies provide aircraft and pilots to law enforcement agencies, though they usually require an officer or deputy to ride along with a civilian pilot to relay information to the ground.

But Aero View’s system is different. It provides hours of general surveillance rather than aerial support for specific incidents. It sends a live video feed to commanders on the ground, eliminating the need for a ride-a-long deputy.

That makes the system a cheaper alternative. The company is starting out at a time when local governments and law enforcement agencies are looking to cut costs – and one of the biggest is helicopter units.

“Post-9/11, when law enforcement had a lot of federal cash, it was pretty great, but frankly, it’s gone down a little bit. Budgets are tighter in any city – whether for police or fire or teachers,” said David Ayotte, vice president of sales and marketing for North American Surveillance Systems, a Calverton, N.Y., company that sells mounts and other equipment used to outfit choppers with surveillance cameras.

Flight plan

Lancaster is more than Aero View’s hometown and first customer. The city also provided the company with $1.3 million in startup capital. The funding was used to buy a Cessna 172 Skyhawk, equip it with a camera and develop software that transmits a secure live video feed from the plane to the sheriff’s station in Lancaster.

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