February 12, 2012 NBC Nightly News & The Washington Times & The Miami New Times
Drones (those remotely controlled UAVs that are armed to spy and kill) are a familiar tool in US overseas missions. Now some US police departments are adding drones to their arsenals. The FAA recently cleared the use of drones inside the US, a decision that could mean millions of dollars in profits to the defense-contracting corporations that make drones. The FAA projects that 30,000 drones could be in the nation's skies by 2020. And that's raising eyebrows among civil liberty and privacy advocates.
Drones Could Start Roaming Skies over US Cities NBC Nightly News
NEW YORK (February 11, 2012) -- Drones have become a familiar tool in US missions overseas. We have heard a lot about those remotely controlled eyes in the sky over the Middle East. Now some police departments here at home are adding drones to their arsenals. And that's raising eyebrows among privacy advocates. We get our report tonight from NBC's Charles Headlock.
WASHINGTON, DC (February 7, 2012) -- Look! Up in the sky! Is it a bird? Is it a plane? It's ... a drone, and it's watching you. That's what privacy advocates fear from a bill Congress passed this week to make it easier for the government to fly unmanned spy planes in US airspace.
The FAA Reauthorization Act, which President Obama is expected to sign, also orders the Federal Aviation Administration to develop regulations for the testing and licensing of commercial drones by 2015.
Privacy advocates say the measure will lead to widespread use of drones for electronic surveillance by police agencies across the country and eventually by private companies as well.
"There are serious policy questions on the horizon about privacy and surveillance, by both government agencies and commercial entities," said Steven Aftergood, who heads the Project on Government Secrecy at the Federation of American Scientists.
The Electronic Frontier Foundation also is "concerned about the implications for surveillance by government agencies," said attorney Jennifer Lynch.
The provision in the legislation is the fruit of "a huge push by lawmakers and the defense sector to expand the use of drones" in American airspace, she added.
According to some estimates, the commercial drone market in the United States could be worth hundreds of millions of dollars once the FAA clears their use.
The agency projects that 30,000 drones could be in the nation's skies by 2020.
The highest-profile use of drones by the United States has been in the CIA's armed Predator-drone program, which targets al Qaeda terrorist leaders. But the vast majority of US drone missions, even in war zones, are flown for surveillance. Some drones are as small as model aircraft, while others have the wingspan of a full-size jet.
In Afghanistan, the US use of drone surveillance has grown so rapidly that it has created a glut of video material to be analyzed.
The legislation would order the FAA, before the end of the year, to expedite the process through which it authorizes the use of drones by federal, state and local police and other agencies. The FAA currently issues certificates, which can cover multiple flights by more than one aircraft in a particular area, on a case-by-case basis.
The Department of Homeland Security is the only federal agency to discuss openly its use of drones in domestic airspace.
US Customs and Border Protection, an agency within the department, operates nine drones, variants of the CIA's feared Predator. The aircraft, which are flown remotely by a team of 80 fully qualified pilots, are used principally for border and counternarcotics surveillance under four long-term FAA certificates.
Officials say they can be used on a short-term basis for a variety of other public-safety and emergency-management missions if a separate certificate is issued for that mission. "It's not all about surveillance," Mr. Aftergood said.
Homeland Security has deployed drones to support disaster relief operations. Unmanned aircraft also could be useful for fighting fires or finding missing climbers or hikers, he added.
The FAA has issued hundreds of certificates to police and other government agencies, and a handful to research institutions to allow them to fly drones of various kinds over the United States for particular missions.
The agency said it issued 313 certificates in 2011 and 295 of them were still active at the end of the year, but the FAA refuses to disclose which agencies have the certificates and what their purposes are.
The Electronic Frontier Foundation is suing the FAA to obtain records of the certifications.
"We need a list so we can ask [each agency], 'What are your policies on drone use? How do you protect privacy? How do you ensure compliance with the Fourth Amendment?' " Ms. Lynch said.
"Currently, the only barrier to the routine use of drones for persistent surveillance are the procedural requirements imposed by the FAA for the issuance of certificates," said Amie Stepanovich, national security counsel for the Electronic Privacy Information Center, a research center in Washington.
The Department of Transportation, the parent agency of the FAA, has announced plans to streamline the certification process for government drone flights this year, she said. "We are looking at our options" to oppose that, she added.
Section 332 of the new FAA legislation also orders the agency to develop a system for licensing commercial drone flights as part of the nation's air traffic control system by 2015.
The agency must establish six flight ranges across the country where drones can be test-flown to determine whether they are safe for travel in congested skies.
Representatives of the fast-growing unmanned aircraft systems industry say they worked hard to get the provisions into law.
"It sets deadlines for the integration of [the drones] into the national airspace," said Gretchen West, executive vice president of the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International, an industry group. She said drone technology is new to the FAA. The legislation, which provides several deadlines for the FAA to report progress to Congress, "will move the [drones] issue up their list of priorities," Ms. West said.
MIAMI (December 9, 2010) -- In places such as Kabul, Gaza, and Baghdad, unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) hovering over homes, following suspects, and tracking enemies of the state are a daily reality.
So where are the high-tech drones buzzing to next? Miami-Dade County, natch!
The Miami-Dade Police Department is poised to become the first large metro force using drones in its aerial missions. The department finalized a deal to buy a drone called T-Hawk from defense firm Honeywell and officially applied for permission from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) last month to begin flying it around the county.
What's not clear is how cops will sort out the raft of thorny privacy questions hovering around plans for using this powerful, new eye in the sky.
"At this point, it doesn't really matter if you're against this technology, because it's coming," says P. W. Singer, author of Wired for War and an expert on drones. "The precedent that is set in Miami could be huge."
Drones, or UAVs, have exploded in popularity over the past five years. As Singer writes in his book, the military barely used the technology during the invasion of Iraq in 2003. Now the Army and Air Force have more than 7,000 drones overseas, and 44 other countries use the devices.
But Miami-Dade is blazing new territory for civilian law enforcement agencies. Cops in Houston have tested UAVs, and a sheriff's office in Colorado has a drone to look for stranded hikers. But no one has deployed a drone in a large metro area.
"Miami-Dade is really at the front of this trend," says Lindsay Voss, a researcher with the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International (AUVSI), a trade group.
MDPD is keeping the details of its deal with Honeywell quiet. The department didn't respond to Riptide's Freedom of Information Act request about the contract, but sources confirm the drone purchased is Honeywell's T-Hawk.
The 20-pound drone, which resembles a hovering Roomba vacuum with cameras mounted on the sides, can fly for 40 minutes at a time, reach 10,500 feet, and cruise at up to 46 mph, according to one analysis.
The FAA has never approved a drone for regular flight in an urban area, and it's not clear how long it will take the department to get full clearance.
When that happens, MDPD will likely deploy the aircraft with its Special Response Teams. Packing powerful cameras, the drone could track suspects, sweep past houses, and peep through windows. Boosters say the gadget will keep the 305 safer.
"We've seen over in Iraq and Afghanistan, where troops have needed eye in sky, it's been enormously beneficial," Voss says. "Those same qualities can help cities too."
But drones have also stirred up strident criticism from human rights groups, which say the overseas robots bomb indiscriminately and violate basic rights. Amnesty International recently condemned Israel's smothering use of drones for surveillance in Gaza.
That might seem far-fetched in Miami-Dade -- but politicians, police, and lawyers will soon have a whole new realm of privacy issues to fight about.
"All the legal and political and ethical... complications and questions we have to figure out are enormous," Singer says. "What seemed like science fiction just a few years ago is becoming reality." Gorgon Stare Newser
(January 2, 2011) -- It's called Gorgon Stare, after the beast of Greek myth, but this Gorgon is a new Air Force surveillance system set to be deployed on drones in Afghanistan. With nine cameras that can send up to 65 different images to different users at once, Gorgon Stare takes cues from ESPN football and reality TV, and can tag images in a particular area for more than a month, instantly beaming information to soldiers in the field. "We can see everything," a senior Air Force official tells the Washington Post.
But questions remain about how effective even this $17.5 million surveillance technology can be. Can the military process such a huge quantity of data? And can it get enough intelligence on the ground, from human sources? Despite reservations, the Air Force is greatly expanding its use of drones in Afghanistan, quadrupling over the past two years, and demand for more continues to grow.
"What these technologies will allow us to do is remove more and more ground forces and replace them with sensors where we normally would have to rely on people going somewhere to find something out," says an official.
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