The domestic use of drones, or Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) is nothing new. According to a recent Justice Department report, the Federal Bureau of Investigation has been using drones to support law enforcement operations since 2006. With the rapidly increasing use of this technology, however, it is projected that drones will virtually fill the skies over the US within five years.
The DoJ itself has been investing in drone technology since 2004 and their new report reveals that several other federal agencies, as well as local law enforcement departments, are planning to ramp-up the use of drones within the coming years.
The Federal Aviation Administration overseas the use of drones and the FBI, which says it uses drones only to conduct surveillance operations against stationary targets, is required to obtain FAA approval for the deployment of UAVs. Former FBI Director Robert Mueller is on record as telling Congress that protocols were being developed for the time when drones “become more omnipresent”.
Civil liberties groups, including the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) have expressed concerns about a further erosion of personal privacy. The federal agencies concerned argue that there is little difference between how drones will be used for surveillance and how information is currently collected through the use of manned aircraft. In April 2012, Representatives Edward Markey (D-MA) and Joe Barton (R-TX) wrote to FAA administrator Michael Huerta, urging safeguards guaranteeing the privacy of the American people. They pointed out that drones are often “designed to carry surveillance equipment, including video cameras, infrared thermal imagers, radar and wireless network ‘sniffers.” The lawmakers went on to insist that the FAA has “the responsibility to ensure that the privacy of individuals is protected and that the public is fully informed about who is using drones in public airspace and why.”
It is projected that, by the year 2018, around 30,000 drones will be deployed worldwide. The United States is forecast to account for roughly half that number. There is no clear indication, however, that this figure – suggested by the aerospace industry – takes into account the vast potential for UAV deployment by non-governmental entities and even private citizens. Various models of small UAVs are already available for purchase by private citizens. A drone can be purchased via the Amazon website, for example, for as little as 400-500 dollars. Although these models are not large enough to be equipped with sophisticated surveillance equipment, people have already experimented with attaching small cameras to them. There can be little doubt that, as the technology improves and the price-point reduced, individuals will be able to purchase increasingly advanced models.
In addition, uses for drone technology extend, potentially, to media organizations, security companies, online mapping and navigation applications, human rights organizations, conservation groups, universities and any other entity or function that relies on the collection of visual and/or audio information. In early 2012, the Wall Street Journal published a list of organizations that had, thus far, applied for UAV operating licenses. The list was obtained under the Freedom Of Information Act and a link to it appears at the foot of this article.
One of the main concerns for the federal government is the potential for accidents and even collisions with aircraft; the technology is far from being perfected and there are, as yet, no clear set of safety guidelines and regulations, governing the deployment of UAVs. Another possible concern is the response of the general public to having drones hovering in the skies above; since, unlike the more sophisticated military versions, civilian UAVs are not capable, nor do they carry sufficiently advanced equipment, for higher-altitude flight. This leaves them potentially vulnerable to small-arms fire from the ground. Speaking on Fox News last year, prominent Libertarian Judge Andrew Napolitano said “the first American patriot that shoots down one of these drones that comes too close to his children in his backyard will be an American hero.”
UAVs appear to be the next wave of technological advancement; their widespread use, though certain to instigate legal battles and, quite possibly, Supreme Court rulings, is likely an inevitability and, within just five years, drones may fill US skies. Constitutional debates loom large and Americans will again face the question of whether it is worth sacrificing freedom for security.
Graham J Noble