Domestic drones “pose a threat to privacy and civil liberties … Law enforcement has not been very transparent about what kind of data is being collected by these drones.”
LOS ANGELES — To a shopkeeper in the Pakistani town of Miramshah, they are “like the angels of death. Only they know when and where they will strike.” To civil libertarians, they are a threat to our most basic rights, eyes in the sky that can peek into our most private activities. To others, they have revolutionized warfare and could do the same for fighting crime.
Either way, unmanned aerial vehicles — or as they are popularly known, “drones” — are coming soon to airspace near you.
“We are seeing a pretty sharp increase in their use domestically by law enforcement agencies,” said Jennifer Lynch, senior staff attorney with the Electronic Frontier Foundation. “People are concerned about drone use because of the movement away from the military toward law enforcement agencies.”
With the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration now working on rules for commercial drone flights, and the Department of Justice’s Office of the Inspector General recommending that the department consider a “DOJ-wide policy regarding [drone] use in areas and ways that could have significant privacy or other legal implications,” here is a MintPress guide to the technology, capabilities and implications of drones.
Constantly advancing technology
Drones are unmanned aircraft that — at least for now — are controlled remotely from military bases where pilots steer them, analyze the images that their cameras send back via satellite and act on what they see. A typical drone is made of highly complex, lightweight composite materials, allowing it to cruise at high altitudes for extended periods of time. Some are light enough to be launched by hand while others, such as the larger spy planes, require short runways.
The drones’ sensors, which collect the data sent back to the air base, are carried in the plane’s nose. They include color and black-and-white TV cameras, image intensifiers, radar, state-of-the-art infrared imaging for low-light conditions, and Global Positioning Systems. Military drones, such as the Air Force’s MQ-1B Predator and the newer MQ-9 Reaper, can carry a more lethal payload — laser-guided Hellfire II missiles that can strike at a range of up to five miles.
Drone technology is constantly advancing. Since 2001, the U.S. military has spent more than $26 billion on drones and, according to one estimate, worldwide spending on UAV research and development and procurement in 2013 was $6.6 billion.
“Historically, you look at when the Wright brothers first flew,” an Air Force drone pilot told public television’s “Nova” show. “A hundred years later, we are actively flying a remotely piloted aircraft. So, we’re kind of on the ground floor now. There’s nowhere to go but up.”
Scientists are now working to improve the clarity and range of the real-time video from drone cameras. At 1.8 gigapixels, the Argus-IS camera one of the highest-resolution systems in the world. From an altitude of 20,000 feet, it can spot targets as small as six inches and view 10 square miles of terrain at a time.
Another area of advanced electronics research is to make drones fully “autonomous,” that is, go anywhere on their own without any human control. One drone, the Global Hawk, is already virtually autonomous, the remote pilot having only to push a button for “take off” and “land” while the UAV gets directions from GPS.
“The Holy Grail is to do all of this without any kind of external sensing, without GPS, and, in principle, we can do it,” Vijay Kumar, a robotics expert at the University of Pennsylvania, said on “Nova.”
The idea of cheaper, more capable aircraft that can be used without risk to air crews goes back to World War I. Drones were powered by jet engines after World War II and, in 1959, the Air Force began planning for unmanned flights. A highly classified UAV program was launched after pilot Gary Powers was shot down in a U-2 plane over the Soviet Union in 1960. The modern drone first appeared in 1995 with the introduction of the Predator, which was developed by military contractor General Atomics as a tool for gathering surveillance and intelligence. Such systems now cost about $50 million.
According to a report by the Congressional Research Service, the military had 7,494 drones in 2012 — 161 of them Predators — accounting for 31 percent of its entire fleet. In 2005, only 5 percent of military aircraft were robots. The Navy’s next-generation drone will be able to take off and land from an aircraft carrier.
The key capabilities of existing drones are to:
Provide intelligence and tactical support for military operations
Check for bombs and dangerous devices on roads and landing areas
Provide air support
Follow or attack suspicious targets
The Predator and the Reaper, which were conceived as a “hunter-killer” system,” have become a key part of the government’s anti-terror arsenal, identifying and striking targets in Pakistan, Afghanistan, Yemen and Somalia. Military drone strikes have increased dramatically under the Obama administration with, according to a report by the New America Foundation, 43 strikes between January and October 2009, compared to 34 in all of 2008, President George W. Bush’s last year in office.
There were 355 known military drone strikes in Pakistan alone between 2004 and 2013, according to the foundation, some of them helping to decimate the leadership of al-Qaida. Since Obama took office, the foundation estimates, at least 15 of al-Qaida’s most important militants have been killed in drone strikes. The CIA, moreover, used new stealth drones designed to evade radar detection and operate at high altitudes to monitor the compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan, where Osama bin Laden was killed in May 2011. Approximately one in every nine to 10 deaths from drone strikes has been a civilian.
Domestically, U.S. Customs and Border Protection has a fleet of 10 Predator drones, which have been used, among other things, to intercept about 7,600 pounds of narcotics. The agency plans to increase the fleet to 24 by 2016 and has apparently been generous in lending out its drones. According to the Electronic Frontier Foundation, CBP logs show an eight-fold increase between 2010 and 2012 in missions flown by its Predators on behalf of state, local and non-CBP federal agencies.
The Mesa County, Colo., Sheriff’s Department and the Grand Forks County, N.D., Sheriff’s Department are so far the only local law enforcement agencies with FAA approval to use drones. Mesa County has deployed its Falcon drones to aid in search and rescues, help reconstruct crime scenes and arrest suspects, investigate deadly accidents, and get an aerial view of fires.
“Unmanned aircraft can complete 30 percent of the missions of manned aircraft for two percent of the cost,” Benjamin Miller, manager of Mesa County’s UAV program, told a Congressional hearing in March.
But the EFF’s Lynch said domestic drone flights “pose a threat to privacy and civil liberties … Law enforcement has not been very transparent about what kind of data is being collected by these drones.”
CBP drones, she added, “stay up in the air for 20 hours at a time and conduct surveillance of whole cities. They don’t have one suspect in mind. They’re doing surveillance all over an urban area.”
So far, seven states have responded to concerns over intrusive surveillance by passing drone restrictions, with laws in Illinois, Florida, Montana and Tennessee requiring law enforcement to obtain a search warrant when using drones or prohibiting images collected from them from being used in court. Virginia declared a two-year moratorium on drone use by law enforcement to study the privacy implications. According to Lynch, drone use has not yet been challenged in lawsuits but “we will see them in future.” One crucial issue could be whether warrantless drone surveillance of an individual in a public space is barred by the Fourth Amendment.
More drones are looming on the horizon. Congress has directed the FAA to provide drones with widespread access to domestic airspace by 2015, and the agency forecasts that 7,500 small commercial UAVs could be operating five years after that.
The commercial possibilities are almost limitless. In the agricultural sector, for example, researchers at Louisiana State University’s AgCenter recently used a drone to check freeze damage in a sugarcane field by taking aerial photographs. Drones could also help scientists seek out crop-damaging insects and view a field for herbicide-resistant weeds.
“There are many positive uses of drone operations in the future, many uses that will benefit society,” Lynch said.
At the same time, however, the American Civil Liberties Union has warned that the introduction of UAVs into domestic airspace “represents a monumental change in both the use of America’s skies and the potential exposure of Americans to aerial surveillance.”