Coming Soon to a Police Department Near You: Unmanned Aerial Drones

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Raven. Predator. Reaper. Over the last decade, we’ve heard the news reports about the Pentagon’s cutting-edge unmanned aerial platforms flying missions over Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen, Libya, Iran, and Somalia. Used for reconnaissance as well as search-and-destroy missions, the United States’ remote-controlled drones have become synonymous with American military power in the age of the War on Terror. Now, after years of use for surveillance and assassinations abroad, the drones are coming home.

Unarmed Customs and Border Protection variant of General Atomics' Predator B Drone - image credit: Flickr user james_gordon_los_angeles

United States Customs and Border Protection have been using an unarmed variant of General Atomics’ iconic Predator drone to watch the Mexican and Canadian borders since 2005. While the specific mission of the Border Patrol’s Predator fleet is to aid in the interdiction of narcotics and undocumented immigrants en route to the United States, they have also used the drones to aid local law enforcement within the US border.

In June 2011, Border Patrol dispatched one of its Predator drones from Grand Forks Air Force Base to aid the Nelson County, North Dakota Sheriff’s Department in pursuit a group of armed cattle rustlers roughly 75 miles south of the US-Canadian border. After the drone managed to pinpoint the location of the cattle thieves from an elevation of 2 miles, the first-ever publicly-known arrests aided by a Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV) in American airspace were made. As of December 2011, CBP has 9 Predator drones in the field.

There are already a number of other UAVs actively being marketed toward American law enforcement agencies, many of which are constructed by the same defense contractors which make the drones flying over the Middle East and Africa.

AeroVironment Inc. manufactures the Raven, an unarmed lightweight drone used for battlefield reconnaissance by American troops in Iraq and Afghanistan. In October, the company unveiled the Qube, a small quad-rotor UAV geared toward public safety and law enforcement agencies. According to their press release, the 5.5 lb. Qube can fit in the trunk of a police cruiser, is capable of vertical landing and takeoff, and comes equipped with thermal and color imaging systems. The Qube is controlled with a specialized tablet device and can reach altitudes of up to 500 feet.

Visual surveillance is just the tip of the iceberg for UAVs: a two-man team consisting of an ex-Air Force hacker and an RC plane hobbyist developed a small unmanned plane dubbed the WASP, capable of cracking Wi-Fi and GSM networks and retrieving data from them mid-flight. Using an open-source Linux platform and constructed from commercially available parts, the WASP exploits well-documented security vulnerabilities in wireless internet and cellular networks. The proof-of-concept was demonstrated at the Black Hat and DEFCON security conferences in August.

Even more alarming are the specifications of Vanguard Defense’s ShadowHawk, an unmanned helicopter which has already seen military deployment in the Middle East and is currently being marketed toward domestic law enforcement.  According to Vanguard’s webpage on the ShadowHawk, “U.S. Military and Law Enforcement consumers have less-lethal/lethal options including single or multiple shot 37 mm/40mm grenade launcher, [and/or] 12g shotgun.” It is hardly a stretch of the imagination to envision SWAT teams deploying weaponized drone platforms for riot control and other tactical purposes, justifying the $250,000 price tag to taxpayers as the cost of protecting officers from the line of fire. The Federal government is ready to help foot the bill: Vanguard Defense’s webpage links directly to a Department of Homeland Security website outlining how to apply for a grant to outfit your law enforcement agency with one or more UAVs.

The Sheriff’s Department of Montgomery County, Texas has already used a DHS grant to purchase a ShadowHawk, and the office of Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart has been actively pursuing a similar grant. It’s quite possible that one or more ShadowHawk drones may even be deployed in Chicago during the upcoming G8/NATO meetings.

Currently, in order for both public and private entities to fly an unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) in American airspace, the Federal Aviation Administration requires that a Certificate of Authorization or Waiver (COA) be issued. Attempts by the Frontier Electronic Foundation to file a Freedom of Information Act request to see who has been issued these certificates have been stalled since April 2011. Last month, the EFF announced that they were filing a formal suit against the Department of Transportation to find out who, exactly, recieved COAs to fly drones in the United States. To see the EFF’s full complaint against the DOT, visit

On Feb. 14, 2012, H.R. 658, also known as The FAA Modernization and Reform Act of 2012, was signed into law by President Obama. The measure, largely backed by industry groups and law enforcement agencies, expands airspace for UAVs for both public and private actors. Starting this June, police and first responders will no longer need permission from the FAA to fly drones weighing less than 4.4 lbs. below elevations of 400 feet. Additionally, the law sets a plan to open up airspace to civilian drones as soon as September 2015 by expanding the FAA’s drone oversight capacity.

The expansion of high-tech drones with advanced imaging capabilities into American airspace raises a number of privacy questions, which are likely to remained unresolved. The law as it currently stands allows law enforcement agencies to monitor all outdoor areas within their jurisdiction, meaning that UAV-mounted cameras would not in any way violate the Fourth Amendment. It isn’t only a one-way street, however. Unmanned aerial vehicles also provide a powerful new method for activists and protesters to document abuses of power.

“Sousveillance” is a term coined by the Canadian academic Steve Mann which refers to a kind of inverse surveillance, or “watching from beneath.” The concept of sousveillance reflects the increasing technological capability of populations to document the activities of more powerful actors who govern them. In fact, many activists have already been using remote-controlled helicopters and planes for just such a purpose. Several months ago in Warsaw, Poland, an anti-fascist demonstrator deployed an RC helicopter to capture aerial video of purported police collusion with violent nationalist gangs during a Nov 11 riot and released the footage online.

Tim Pool with the Occucopter - image credit: Flickr user stanleyrogouski

In response to NYPD barricades preventing journalists from covering the Occupy Wall Street protests in New York this winter, citizen journalist Tim Pool modified a $300 Parrot A.R. drone (a small commercially-available quad-copter with a built-in camera which can be controlled from a smartphone) to broadcast video directly to the internet, which he dubbed the “Occucopter.” Pool and other OWS-affiliated hackers have started a world-wide collaboration to work on plans to make a cheaper version. For more on the project, see

The proliferation of drones remains troubling, especially considering the potential for armed drones to be employed by domestic law enforcement agencies. However, as activists, we should not lose sight of the ability to leverage these technologies toward holding power accountable for its actions, letting the whole world know that we are watching from above.

Alex Cline moved to Urbana in August 2011 after getting his B.A. in History at New College of Florida to join School for Designing a Society. He currently works at the IMC and is strongly interested in surveillance culture and federal policing methods.

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