Public Safety & Justice

The Rise (and Fall) of Drones

Drones could revolutionize police work. But privacy and security concerns could keep them grounded.
by | December 2012
A small drone, which measures about 36 inches and weighs just over two pounds, during a test flight in Mesa County, Colo., where it has been used for search and rescue mission, to help find suspects, and to identify hot spots after a major fire. (Photo: AP/Mesa County Sheriff's Department)
 

When an inmate escaped from jail in Montgomery County, Texas, a few years back, police took to the skies. Montgomery County sits just north of Houston, but the inmate fled into a nearby wooded area, making it harder for law enforcement officers to track him down. Fortunately, the sheriff’s department was able to secure a helicopter from the Texas Department of Public Safety. Officers located the inmate using an infrared camera, and they directed deputies to the location.

Today, they’d just use a drone.

Unmanned aerial vehicles, better known as UAVs or drones, are beginning to be embraced by local law enforcement agencies across the United States. Unmanned drones have, of course, made headlines in recent years for their use in foreign military operations. Drone surveillance helped target Osama bin Laden’s compound, and a CIA Predator drone fired the missile that killed Anwar al-Awlaki, another high-profile Al Qaeda figure. Now, the vehicles are likely moving into domestic airspace as well. In an effort to push for drone use in police and fire departments, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) has reportedly awarded more than $3 million in grants to at least 13 local law enforcement agencies to purchase small drones -- including Montgomery County, which last year became one of the first local agencies in the country to acquire its own aerial drone. The county purchased a ShadowHawk MK-II drone last year for about $300,000, using a $220,000 DHS grant.

Drones could revolutionize police work. Helicopters are expensive to fuel and maintain, and flying them takes specialized piloting skills. Because they’re in relatively short supply, using a helicopter often requires interdepartmental coordination, as was the case in Montgomery County’s manhunt. By comparison, drones are easy. They cost about 100 times less than a helicopter, and operating a drone costs significantly less per hour. They’re extremely light: Montgomery’s gas-powered ShadowHawk weighs just 49 pounds. At six feet long, it can fit in the back of an SUV, and piloting it requires nothing more than a laptop computer and a remote control. It’s a nimble crime-fighting tool that will be an essential asset in the future, says Montgomery Chief Deputy Randy McDaniel. When McDaniel’s office acquired the drone last year, he issued a statement saying, “I absolutely believe it will become a critical component on all SWAT callouts and narcotics raids and emergency management operations.”

“Having eyes in the air above an incident will enhance the awareness of the commander on the ground, to ensure his officers’ safety and the public’s safety,” McDaniel says today. “You can’t literally surround a building or a house every time. Having that drone up in the air above it can enhance safety for law enforcement.” The device would also help in non-crime situations, McDaniel says, such as tracking down hikers who have lost their way in nearby Sam Houston National Forest. “People get lost in that forest every year,” McDaniel says. “It would certainly be more effective to put that UAV up as opposed to sending 30 or 40 search-and-rescue personnel to walk it.”

It’s not just police departments that see big potential in unmanned drones. Fire departments and other emergency response teams could use them to help pinpoint the source of a building fire or, say, map a hazmat spill. The federal Department of Agriculture uses a drone to monitor experimental crops in Georgia and Alabama; state agriculture departments could no doubt find plenty of similar uses. Documents disclosed by a Freedom of Information Act request this summer from the Electronic Frontier Foundation showed that the federal government had approved drones for 18 public entities around the country, including police departments in Seattle, Miami-Dade, Fla., and North Little Rock, Ark., as well as places like Ohio University and the city of Herington, Kan. Thanks to anticipated changes in federal aviation regulations, thousands of private and commercial drones could also take to the air by 2015. According to FAA estimates, more than 30,000 drones could fill the American skies by 2020. As University of Texas assistant professor Todd Humphreys, who has investigated the use of domestic drones, testified to Congress earlier this year, “The UAV revolution is coming.”

Needless to say, privacy concerns are huge. Nothing says “Big Brother police state” quite like the idea of faceless surveillance drones flitting through the sky, tracking and videotaping civilians’ every move. According to one recent national poll, while 44 percent of Americans support the use of drones by police forces, a large minority -- 36 percent -- were opposed because of the potential for privacy invasion. Those fears are further stoked by comments like a recent statement from Alameda County, Calif., Sheriff Gregory Ahern, who said his department, which has filed for drone clearance from the FAA, would use the vehicles to troll for marijuana farms and other forms of “proactive policing.”

“Our ultimate concern is that drones become a tool for pervasive, routine, suspicionless surveillance,” says Jay Stanley, a senior policy analyst for the American Civil Liberty Union’s (ACLU) Speech, Privacy and Technology Project. “We don’t want to see them used for 24/7 tracking of vehicles or individuals, and over towns or cities or neighborhoods. We don’t want to see them used for individual suspicion. We don’t want them to be used in ways that are invasive.”

Law enforcement officials say that’s not their intention, and they couldn’t use drones that way even if they wanted to. “We did not obtain this for the purpose of surveillance,” says McDaniel. “Our ShadowHawk’s maximum aloft time is only two hours and 20 minutes, and you would never fly it for that length of time to begin with.” FAA regulations prohibit drones from flying higher than 400 feet, and they require that drones remain in line of sight of the user. In other words, says McDaniel, if a drone’s around, you’ll know it. “It’s not like its 30,000 feet up in the air and you can’t see it and you can’t hear it. It’s going to be visible to the naked eye, and you’re certainly going to hear it.”

Current drone technology may not lend itself to stealth surveillance, but that’s why privacy legislation should be passed now, before it becomes a problem, say advocates. “While drones are new and novel and everybody’s worried about the privacy issue,” says Stanley, “we need to put in place some farseeing rules and protections that will cover every possible evolution of this technology.”

So far, no state has passed legislation regulating drones, although New Jersey took a preliminary step in June by introducing a bill that outlined warrant procedures for law enforcement’s use of drones. In August, the International Association of Chiefs of Police adopted guidelines for the use of unmanned aircraft. The guidelines call for transparency in how the vehicles are used, and say that any images captured by aerial drones and retained by police should be open to the public. In cases where drones might collect evidence of criminal wrongdoing, or if they will intrude on reasonable expectations of privacy, guidelines suggest police should obtain a prior search warrant. Those instructions aren’t binding, but they’re a good start, privacy advocates say.

At the federal level, the ACLU has recommended that government use of drones be banned except in very specific cases. One piece of legislation has been introduced in Congress by Republican Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky, which would ban domestic governmental drone use except in patrolling the border or in high-risk security situations. The bill currently lacks bipartisan support. While the ACLU says the bill isn’t perfect, its legislative counsel Chris Calabrese says the bill is “starting in the right place, and we’re going to work with him as he moves forward.”

In addition to questions about privacy, another concern is drones’ security. First, there’s the immediate worry that comes from allowing individually operated aircraft in domestic airspace, particularly in a post-9/11 world. That concern was borne out last year, when a man in Massachusetts was thwarted after attempting to equip several drones with C4 explosives and fly them into the Capitol and Pentagon. Second, civilian drones can be hacked, or “spoofed,” by a counterfeit GPS signal. (Unlike military GPS signals, civilian signals are not encrypted.) The spoofed drone thinks it’s in a different place, allowing the hacker to take rudimentary control of it. In a demonstration in June, the University of Texas’ Humphreys led a team of researchers who successfully hacked into one drone’s navigation system.

Regulating this type of vehicle typically would fall under the purview of Homeland Security, but that department has so far declined to regulate the UAV industry. That’s a major problem, says Texas Rep. Michael McCaul, who chairs the House Subcommittee on Oversight, Investigations and Management. “I find this to be a bit of a ‘nobody’s minding the store’ type scenario,” McCaul says. “No federal agency’s willing to step up to the plate, and when you have the [Government Accountability Office] saying the DHS needs to do it, I tend to agree with them.” Without regulation at the federal level, security oversight could fall to individual states.

For his part, Humphreys says he’s not overly worried about drone security. Spoofing a UAV requires a high level of expertise and very expensive software. But as with the privacy issues, it’s an issue that almost certainly will be exacerbated as technology advances. “What my nightmare scenario would be,” he says, “is looking forward three or four years, where we have now adopted the UAVs into the national airspace without addressing this problem. Now the problem is scaling up, so that we have more heavy UAVs, more capable UAVs and yet this particular vulnerability isn’t addressed.”

There’s no question that unmanned aerial vehicles could forever change crime fighting, disaster response and a host of other functions. Given the push from the federal government, it seems inevitable that drones will increasingly be a part of police assets around the country. But it’s important to address concerns over privacy and security now, says Humphreys. “Let’s let it go ahead,” he says. “But let’s be vigilant.”

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