19 June 2012


Yesterday's post dealt with the use of UAVs under the control of the CIA in military operations in foreign countries.  Today's post deals with the use of UAVs within the borders of the U.S.

According to an online report, drones have been used by American law enforcement agencies for surveillance for some time (see image above, click to enlarge).  In the near future, domestic drones may be weaponized ~ able to fire rubber bullets, tear gas, or Tasers.  According to a staff attorney for the ACLU, "It's simply not appropriate to use any force, lethal or non-lethal on a drone .... an officer operating an armed drone from afar would not have the same understanding of a situation that an officer on location would have.  So judgment on the use of force would be limited by this narrowness of observation .... The prospect of people out in public being Tased or targeted by force raises the prospect of unconstitutional force being used on individuals.

"The ACLU is also worried about the general atmosphere of pervasive surveillance that may engulf America as the use of drone technology becomes wider."

The scenario sounds like something out of the Terminator science fiction movies.  Not pretty.  Many years ago, when police departments in Tucson, AZ, and many other cities introduced helicopters for use in surveillance and the pursuit of suspects, there was much public outcry over the invasion of privacy by law enforcement's "eye in the sky".  That outcry has diminished as police helicopter have proven their utility in tracking fleeing criminals, especially at night, and as most law enforcement agencies have demonstrated restraint in their use.

But the obvious difference is that helicopters are manned by a pilot and navigator/copilot.  Human judgment is right there on the scene.  Drones have no such advantage.  Their operation by remote control (either line-of-sight radio or by satellite link) means that it becomes much easier for a drone operator sitting at a computer screen miles from the scene of action to be lulled into the mindset of playing a video game, rather than having the mindset of an officer on the scene whose own safety is on the line, depending on his/her judgment.  It's about human control and human presence, with the safety and civil liberties of the public at stake.

Further, there is a greater risk of collateral damage from drones, as has happened repeatedly with their use by the military.  Unintended civilian casualties are unlikely to see the justification of drones ~ especially when the use of even rubber bullets, tear gas, or Tasers can cause permanent disability or death.

UAVs come in a wide variety of sizes and configurations, depending on the mission.  Click here for images.  The FAA currently authorizes the use of UAVs weighing up to 11.3 kilograms (25 lb.) by police and fire agencies.  Armed drones would likely be larger and heavier, to accommodate their weaponry and ammunition.

Lastly, there is serious concern within the civil aviation community over domestic flights by both military and law enforcement drones.  AOPA has clearly voiced its concerns to the FAA and federal lawmakers over the potential conflict between civilian aircraft and drones, the latter being exempt from having to file flight plans.  Pilots' concern is not  unfounded.  There are 64 military drone bases on U.S. soil (see map here), added to dozens, potentially hundreds of civilian law enforcement drone operations.  A drone operator, focused on his/her target, is unlikely to see an approaching civilian aircraft.  And an airplane or helicopter pilot is unlikely to notice a much smaller drone, particularly without official notice of the drone's presence in the area.  A future collision appears inevitable as drones multiply in number.

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