In a busy, chaotic world nothing trumps simplicity. A successful organization, whether a private business or a public safety agency, is constantly seeking ways to simplify its processes. Recently, a technological marvel has emerged which holds the promise to do just that for a variety of jobs. That machine is the Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV), aka a drone.
In law enforcement we are constantly looking for better ways to do a dangerous job. That means ways to improve on parameters such as safety, economy and efficiency (though not always, unfortunately, in that order). Unmanned drones show promise in each of these areas, and our interest has been piqued.
In Texas, a sheriff’s department recently purchased a $300,000 drone for its SWAT team, ostensibly to provide real time intelligence during critical incidents. Federal agencies are now envisioning drones on patrol along our sparsely populated border areas, checking for narcotics production in dense national forests and conducting surveillance at any number of secure installations.
I’ll admit that all sounds like an efficient, cheap and safe use for this new machine. Yet I have serious misgivings about the future of domestic drone use. In fact, and I can’t believe I’m saying this, I have found the ACLU’s arguments against a proliferation of UAV’s to be very persuasive.
That’s right, the American Civil Liberties Union. The yin to a cop’s yang.
It may be uncomfortable to admit, but the ACLU is right to speak up on this issue. Per congressional mandate the FAA will be setting domestic restrictions for the technology by 2015 so now is the time – before drones begin slowly saturating American airspace – to make sure that our elected officials and the FAA are clear on at least two relevant concerns: Safety and privacy.
Safe air travel does not begin and end with airlines. Thousands of small aircraft, flown by real people no less, already punch holes in the sky. In my former life as a flight instructor I saw all too often how easy it was for pilots, even skilled ones, to make dangerous mistakes. Midair collisions may be uncommon, but near misses occur frequently. Crashing into the ground is common enough that it has an acronym, CFIT, for Controlled Flight Into Terrain.
Domestic drones would also be piloted by people, though perhaps not as skilled as the Air Force pilots who fly Predator drones on combat missions in Afghanistan. But if military pilots can make mistakes in war zones halfway around the world (i.e. friendly fire or civilian casualties), lesser trained domestic pilots will certainly be prone to dangerous errors here at home.
Privacy is the most debated concern regarding domestic drone use. A recent Trib report (7/3) outlined policies recently adopted by a trade group composed of drone manufacturers, The Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems. The policies were written as a preemptive strike against privacy advocates such as the ACLU, but in doing so the trade group has acknowledged that unchecked drone usage could lead to abuse. Here are some possible (albeit paranoid) scenarios:
- Paparazzi drones flying over Hollywood pool parties, snapping pictures of skinny-dipping celebrities
- Advertising drones orbiting shopping malls, hauling banners and quietly photographing shoppers for market research
- Police drones circling outdoor concert venues filming video scanned in real time by cops looking for misdemeanor violations
Paranoid or not, UAV technology is, like the proverbial genie, out of the bottle. Since we are about to share the skies with a new wave of unmanned aircraft, it is essential that we ensure the technology is not only safe but a good fit for a free society.
We don’t have a choice. This genie is not going back in.