Military Drones Coming Home to Roost in the Skies of America's Cities
December 11, 2011 Brian Naylor / National Public Radio
Unmanned aircraft -- or drones -- are playing a large role in US military operations in Afghanistan, but they're starting to show up the the skies above the US as well. Drones are already used to patrol the border with Mexico and now they may soon be coming to a police department near you.
Look, Up In The Sky!
It's A Drone, Looking At You Brian Naylor / NPR
(December 5, 2011) -- Unmanned aircraft -- or drones -- are playing a large role in US military operations in Afghanistan, but they're starting to show up the the skies above the US as well. Drones are already used to patrol the border with Mexico and now they may soon be coming to a police department near you.
Just consider a video on drone manufacturer AeroVironment's website: Police officers chase a suspect to his home. The suspect runs behind the house, out of sight. The officers open the trunk of their patrol car and pull out what looks like a toy model aircraft with four rotors and a video camera. They launch the aircraft, which allows them to monitor their suspect's movements through a video feed on an iPad-like tablet and, ultimately, to apprehend him.
AeroVironment calls its unmanned aircraft the Qube, and while it may look like something kids would look for under the Christmas tree, it's no toy.
"The Qube is the first solution that AeroVironment has introduced specifically targeting what we identify as the public safety market, and that's really public safety professionals like law enforcement, search and rescue, and first responders," says company vice president Steve Gitlin.
Drones -- or unmanned vehicles -- have been a success with the military, and companies such as AeroVironment hope to make them an increasingly common sight in this country. Gitlin says the Qube costs just a bit more than a police patrol car, making it a much less expensive alternative to a manned helicopter.
In Mesa County, Colo., the sheriff's department is testing a drone called the Dragonfly X6. Ben Miller, unmanned systems coordinator for the sheriff's office, says it's been especially useful in search operations.
"We had a lost subject in a vegetated creek bed and we were given about a mile length of that creek to search," Miller says. "We completed that search in just a little over an hour with two staff members."
Miller says a typical search using volunteers marching shoulder-to-shoulder would have taken hours. On top of that, he says there have been no bugs with the drones and they're easy to operate.
"At about 2 pounds, the safety risks to people on the ground are rather minimal," he says. "In fact it weighs less than your common Canadian goose."
While law enforcement is a big market for makers of unmanned aircraft systems -- known as UAS's -- there are many other potential civilian users.
Gretchen West is with the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International, an industry trade group.
"Utility companies -- so oil and gas -- [are] using a UAS to do surveillance over a pipeline," she says, as are electrical companies wanting to watch over their electrical wires. West says drones can be used for crop-dusting and tracking livestock. They've already been used for flood mapping in North Dakota, and they could also be used for weather research.
But all those unmanned aircraft have some people a little wary. Privacy advocate Harley Geiger of the Center for Democracy and Technology says drones are basically flying video cameras.
"Drones can easily be equipped with facial recognition cameras, infrared cameras or open Wi-Fi sniffers," Geiger says. "So when people think about drones they shouldn't just think that a telephoto lens is the only feature that can raise a privacy issue."
Nor, says Geiger, is it only law enforcement that could be watching: "The paparazzi, your homeowners' association, your neighbor, a journalist can all sic drones on you as well."
Geiger says people should watch the Federal Aviation Administration, which is currently working on rules to establish standards such as how high drones can fly and what kind of training operators need. He hopes the agency will also address privacy concerns in the proposed regulations that could be released next month.
(July 30, 2011) -- Every week it seems there are reports about US drones -- unmanned, remote-controlled aerial vehicles -- tracking down suspected terrorists in remote, unreachable areas of Yemen, Somalia, Libya or Pakistan. Drone technology is becoming increasingly affordable and accessible, with new potential for everyday use in the United States -- and new worries for national security.
Uses At Home
Shane Harris, journalist and author of The Watchers: The Rise of America's Surveillance State, tells Weekend Edition Saturday host Scott Simon there are several potential near-term uses for drones. The Customs and Border Protection unit of Homeland Security, for example, is experimenting with drones the size of small birds for monitoring the border.
Harris says drones have also been used in natural disaster situations, including at the Fukushima plant after the earthquake in Japan. Drones the size of spiders could inspect houses during hostage situations. He says drones are also likely to be used in mass farming to replace crop dusters or even herd cattle -- even traffic helicopters could also be replaced.
The technology could theoretically also fly jumbo jets, Harris says, allowing companies like UPS and FedEx to use drones instead of people to fly their planes.
"It could certainly be much more efficient. They could perhaps fly routes that human beings can't fly. They certainly don't have to take breaks the way that humans do," he says. "Then that sort of raises the question ... would we ever feel comfortable -- we, people, getting on a Delta or American Airlines flight that didn't have a pilot in it?"
There are also national security implications in the development of drones, according to John Villasenor, a professor of electrical engineering at UCLA and a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. He tells Simon the dialogue about drones generally focuses on US usage.
"With the inevitable proliferation issues, we have to also consider the inverse problem, which is, what happens when people consider using drones against us?" Villasenor says. "And to the extent that drones are becoming significantly smaller, more widely available and less expensive, it becomes more difficult to ensure that they don't fall into the wrong hands."
In Japan, the Aum Shinrikyo cult considered using drones in the attack they carried out on the Tokyo subway system in the 1990s, but ultimately decided on other means.
"It's a sobering example, because here you have a group of people who were absolutely bent on and, in fact, did create a terror attack and ... drones were absolutely on their radar screen," Villasenor says. "So it stands to reason that they will be on the radar screen of other such groups in the future."
Technology Brings New Complications
He says the noteworthy thing about drones is how quickly the technology has changed.
"You can imagine a world where you might be being attacked not by one drone but by a swarm of 150 of them and how in the world would you defend against that?" Villasenor says.
Even with an expensive defense system that could take down such an attack, other complications include what else might get vaporized in the process.
Harris says drones also have profound implications for privacy.
"The machines can do things that we can't do. The machines can watch in ways that we can't watch," he says. "It's a much more profound kind of sense of invasion, too, because now you're talking not just about the limits of surveillance being, how many cops can we put on the street or how many helicopters can we put over the air?"
Once drones start to proliferate, Harris says, "it's going to be very hard to pull them back."
The Race Is On
There is a kind of drone race starting, he says. Harris says about 50 countries use surveillance drones, though not very many use armed drones the way the United States does. In a recent air show, China showed off drones that can attack aircraft carriers, which, Harris says, "look suspiciously like US aircraft carriers."
"So they're definitely sending a signal to us and to other countries that, 'You're not the only ones who are going to be able to build these things and to fly them,'" he says.
Villasenor says the countries developing the technology could also sell it. "The reason this can happen is that this technology in many ways isn't much different than what you have in a smartphone or a tablet or a laptop computer. That's why all these people can have access to it," he says. "This isn't your father's drone, where you had to be a very, very well-funded, very sophisticated military laboratory. In fact, a lot of the parts for these drones are available at electronic stores in every country in the world."
In as few as seven years, Villasenor says drones will be "incomprehensibly small by today's standards" and "not only affordable, but genuinely cheap."
The Department of Homeland Security did not respond to requests for an interview or comment.
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