Drones over America: Public Safety Benefit or 'Creepy' Privacy Threat?

Article excerpt

Shortly after Alan Frazier became a part-time deputy sheriff in Grand Forks, N.D., the police began looking into the possibility of buying some aircraft to boost their law enforcement capabilities. They wanted some help doing things like finding missing people or carrying out rescues in a region dotted by farmsteads threatened by flooding that wipes out access to roads.

Buying a turbine engine helicopter, however, would cost $25 million, a prohibitive price tag even with 11 law enforcement agencies eight from North Dakota and three in western Minnesota willing to share the cost.

So Mr. Frazier, also an assistant professor of aviation at the University of North Dakota (UND), began looking into unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) as a possible alternative.

But what appears, on one level, to be a sensible, practical, and affordable solution for local law enforcement the price tag for a small UAV is about the cost of a tricked-out new police cruiser at $50,000 has run smack into public concerns about yet another high- tech invasion of privacy and the popular image of drones as stealthy weapons used against terrorists.

Nonetheless, the technology's potential benefits in pursuing a raft of public safety measures at relatively low cost have enormous appeal for law enforcement agencies across the country, since President Obama signed a bill last year directing the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to further open US airspace to drones for both public and private use.

Even before that, the number of permits, known as certificates of authorization (COAs), that the FAA issued to organizations to fly UAVs more than doubled from 146 in 2009 to 313 in 2011. As of February 2013 there were 327 active COAs.

The bulk of these permits go to the US military for training, and the Pentagon expects their numbers to grow considerably in the years to come. According to a March 2011 Pentagon estimate, the Department of Defense will have 197 drones at 105 US bases by 2015.


The US Border Patrol has the country's largest fleet of UAVs for domestic surveillance, including nine Predator drones that patrol regions like the Rio Grande, searching for illegal immigrants and drug smugglers. Unlike the missile-firing Predators used by the Central Intelligence Agency to hunt Al Qaeda operatives and their allies, the domestic version of the aircraft say, those used by the border patrol is more typically equipped with night-vision technology and long-range cameras that can read license plates. Groups like the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) also complain that these drones have see-through imaging technology similar to those used in airports, as well as facial recognition software tied to federal databases.

The growth in drones is big business. Some 50 companies are developing roughly 150 systems, according to The Wall Street Journal, ranging from miniature flying mechanical bugs to "Battlestar Galactica"-type hovering unmanned airplanes. It's an industry expected to reach some $6 billion in US sales by 2016.

Those forecasts notwithstanding, neither the FAA nor the association of UAV operators says it knows how many nonmilitary drones are operating in the United States. The ACLU is seeking that information.

The growth in the development of UAVs by both private companies and the US government has not gone unnoticed, creating a backlash in some communities.

In Seattle last month, community members quashed their city's drone program before it even got started. The program was being considered for search-and-rescue operations and some criminal investigations, but was referred to by protesters as "flying government robots watching their every move."

Mayor Mike McGinn spoke with Police Chief John Diaz, "and we agreed that it was time to end the unmanned aerial vehicle program," the mayor wrote in a statement. The drones were returned to the manufacturer.

Just days earlier, Charlottesville, Va. …