Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Police use of unmanned spy drones won't expand beyond Houston, yet

Here's a curious little story out of Collin County about the Sheriff's Department being turned down by the Federal Aviation Administration to use federal stimulus money to purchase "unmanned drones," for heaven knows what purpose. According to the McKinney Courier-Gazette (June 16), Sheriffs Office "officials said the department withdrew their request application from the Collin County Commissioner's Court to seek a federal stimulus grant to purchase the devices because FAA regulations have listed the majority of Collin County's skies as restricted airspace."

According to this source, however, it's not just that Collin County is restricted space but the FAA simply does not approve unmanned drones for routine law enforcement use outside of a couple of pilot programs. "
Despite pressure from some law enforcement agencies, the FAA is holding firm to its policy against routine use of unmanned aerial vehicles. "There is nothing to our knowledge and no UAS technology at this time that would allow unmanned aircraft to meet the same 'see and avoid' [regulatory technical] standard that manned aircraft have to operate under," FAA spokesman Les Dorr recently told GovTech.com (06/09)

The Courier-Gazette described similar barriers for Collin County:
Chris Dancy, a spokesman for the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association headquartered in Frederick, Ma., said he isn't aware of any police agencies or sheriff's department who have fully implemented the technology because of the same problem.

He said the vehicles have to be under a constant monitor while they are in the air and don't have the technology to sense other objects in their airspace.


"All (unmanned aerial vehicles or UAVs) all lack sense and avoid capability," Dancy said. "A lot of work is being done on that in the aviation industry and our association is working on ways to safely integrate UAVs into airspace so they can share the same space with manned aircraft safely. We're not oppose UAVs. We're just not able to operate them safely in the same airspace with manned aircraft."

New advancements in technology has made UAVs smaller and more economical, but even something as small as a bird can cause problems, Dancy said.

"What a lot of law enforcement agencies have been looking at are fairly small lightweight UAV systems that would operate in relatively low altitudes," Dancy said. "The problem is if you've ever seen the affects of a bird strike on a small or large aircraft and when you have objects moving at such fairly high speeds, it doesn't take lot to cause significant damage to any type aircraft."
In their coverage of the topic, the Dallas News reported that:
The county was pursuing the plans knowing the FAA hadn't approved the use of the aircraft in heavily populated areas. That agency has temporarily allowed Houston and Miami to fly drones as part of a study of how their police departments use them.
I'd heard Houston was testing unmanned drones, but didn't realize the study was still going on. I wonder what they're using them for? I can see uses like search and rescue assistance after Hurricane Ike when the tool could have been incredibly helpful. But I also see many problems with using the technology in service of routine law enforcement. It's obvious that there are powerful military-industrial complex interests with big stakes in expanding markets for these drones.

In addition to safety concerns, unmanned drones raise issues of modern technology bumping up against antiquated interpretations of the Fourth Amendment and American privacy rights. Current case law has a "plain sight" exception to the Fourth Amendment, but plain sight takes on a different connotation when, in an urban area, police fly unmanned spy drones over fenced backyards or conceivably even use zoom lenses to peer into windows. That's "plain sight" of a decidedly not so plain variety (or rather, of a "plane" variety"), which raises questions traditional search and seizure law finds itself particularly ill-equipped to answer.

22 comments:

Letterman Fan said...

Oh hell, why not fly one of these drones over Alaska to see what ole' Sara's doing lately, with whom and with what...sure she'd love that... I know Letterman would.

Anonymous said...

Since when did we allow military hardware to be used against civilian personnel INSIDE the US? I never thought I would see the day when military tech was used against our own population...

So, first it is simple unmanned drones, then we see the predator drones with the hellfires on them next year!?!?!?! Good god people what have we allowed this stupid state to do to us...

Why not just let the morons buy some apache platforms so they can mow us down in our yards...

Boyness said...

This is more of the militarization of American law enforcement. The police have no business with tanks, armored personnel carriers, grenade launchers and now drones. At least some of this was used against the polygamists in West Texas.

In addition to the obvious physical danger of cops using military hardware in civil settings, the psychological, us against them, ideology just gets worse.

This is bad, very bad.

Anonymous said...

"At least some of this was used against the polygamists in West Texas."


Screw the poygamists.. you old enough to remember Waco? Cops and Feds in Bradley Fighting vehicles, the old Engineer tanks (which by the way had an incredible 155mm main gun), M113's ... Yeah, yeah, they had ak 47's (The cultists) but ak's are no match for a Bradley or a converted M-60 Patton MBT...

I believe that a 408 round in the optics might just take care of the drones, but you gotta catch them on the lens side...

dirty harry said...

I find the position of the FAA on this interesting. I know people who mount video cameras in homebuilt hobby-type radio controlled airplanes and helicopters and fly them in the Houston area. I know the FAA doesn't require any licensing or oversight of these R/C aircraft. What's the difference?

Anonymous said...

remember when this kind of activity on the part of law enforcement was the fodder of outrageous conspiracy theories? well lookee here.. it's today's reality.

Anonymous said...

I kind of like the idea. They could outfit them with tasers, track down and target all those guilty of traffic offenses.

Give them a couple of good zappings. Save those constables the trouble.

Sounds like a win win to me!

Gritsforbreakfast said...

"What's the difference?"

The Fourth Amendment restricts the actions of government, not private individuals.

dirty harry said...

Ah yes. Thanks, Grits. But, I wonder if the question will come up regarding what government entity is utilizing the spy drones. For instance, we all know the rules regarding search, seizure, and Miranda rights. However, these rules don't apply on public school grounds, which is a local government entity.

Soronel Haetir said...

Given that the same issues have come up wrt helicopters I doubt that such aircraft would run into much in the way of 4th amendment problems. Aerial survielance has already been thrashed out and I doubt the platform matters all that much.

Soronel Haetir said...

As for the RC toys, it would not surprise me if there is an exemption for aircraft flying under a limit like 250 or 500' and within a certain radius of the operator. The FAA is not exactly known to quickly change its mind that something is actually safe, which given the stakes is probably a good thing.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

Good point, Soronel. But I do think these take surveillance to the next level, with zooming high-res cameras and literally no other purpose but peeping into private spaces. Helicopters are klunkly, loud, and mostly used for transportation, not surveillance. Spy satellites may be the better comparison.

A.H. Jordan said...

Constitutional worries aside for the moment, Am I the only person who finds this whole idea a little too Orwellian? Are we really having a conversation about unmanned spy drones hovering around our neighborhoods without someone in the room jumping up and yelling, "now wait just a damned minute!" ?

dirty harry said...

Well, I know that as VFR flight rules go, you aren't allowed to fly any lower than 1,000 ft AGL over populated areas. You really can't see much detail inside someones window or backyard at this altitude, unless you are utilizing some type of visual enhancement. You can get FAA waivers to break this restriction, but I assure you the FAA doesn't readily hand them out, and it is often on a case by case basis. On top of that, if you are doing some type of extremely low altitude work (like spraying for mosquitoes) that breaks below altitude restrictions over a populated area, you have to utilize at least a twin-engine aircraft.

Anonymous said...

"You really can't see much detail inside someones window or backyard at this altitude, unless you are utilizing some type of visual enhancement."

If these are the same drones that the Military uses, they in fact DO have visually enhanced optics. The drones them selves are about the size of a Cessna, and with the latest version of software and optics it cannot only see that you are smoking a cigarette from 1000 feet, but can read the 'MARLBORO' stamped on it.

It is a truly sorry day when the founding fathers thoughts are brought out in the negative.

"When governments fear the people there is liberty. When the people fear the government there is tyranny."
— Thomas Jefferson

Anonymous said...

Check out this video about the new Dutch drones that fly over neighborhoods to detect heat from marijuana-growing lamps and can "smell" the pot (the video is a little snarky video but the drones are very interesting): http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/21134540/vp/30477632#30477632

Rich said...

Wowie: let's get some predator drones up ASAP. We can't only kill innocent civilians and children in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Let's go get suspicious folks at home too. (Maybe we could be safe from attack if we just killed EVERYONE in the USA! But we're too weak and cowardly. That must be it. Sure!)

Whose wet dream was this little piece of brilliance anyway?

Boyness said...

Today it's drones, tomorrow it's F-16's. The cops do not need military hardware to enforce the law and if and when they do, we are in the latter days.

Anonymous said...

I'm late to this post. The use of unmanned spy drones in Houston or other cities is scary indeed. This is something that would not be requested if the technology/possibility didn't exist. I live in rural Texas and I wonder about the use of manned spy aircraft. There's a constant stream of military aircraft here, training. When the military, surveillance, flies off to Pakistan, for example, they are trained. I'm certain there's surveillance going on in our skies, at least in the name of training. We're sliding further and further to the right. Scary indeed.

Aria said...

The police have no business with tanks, armored personnel carriers, grenade launchers and now drones.I know people who mount video cameras in homebuilt hobby-type radio controlled airplanes and helicopters and fly them in the Houston area...Dallas Courier Service

Anonymous said...

You really can't see much detail inside someones window or backyard at this altitude, unless you are utilizing some type of visual enhancement. You can get FAA waivers to break this restriction, but I assure you the FAA doesn't readily hand them out, and it is often on a case by case basis.online degree

Anonymous said...

You really can't see much detail inside someones window or backyard at this altitude, unless you are utilizing some type of visual enhancement. You can get FAA waivers to break this restriction, but I assure you the FAA doesn't readily hand them out, and it is often on a case by case basis.