Fearing the Reaper (Drone)

In the latest, probably eeriest example of civilian life imitating war, reports indicate that police all over the country want to employ high tech drones to engage in domestic surveillance operations.

That’s right – thanks to 10 years of war and the military’s drive to get increasingly sophisticated equipment to hunt down former sheepherders and poppy farmers armed with old Soviet rifles and cell phones, law enforcement here will soon be able to regularly deploy unmanned aircraft into the sky to “hover and stare” on the domestic population, engaging enough sensors and cameras – and who knows what weapons – to finally obliterate whatever expectation of privacy Americans had left.

Before you hand me a tin foil hat, just for a second think about it, the standard putdown of any conspiracy-minded individual – the Fox Mulder if you will – is that he is a card-carrying member of some “black helicopter” crowd. Well, black helicopters are being replaced by Draganflyer x6 and T-Hawk drones, and in this case, the Mulder doesn’t have to theorize – both are being employed by the government in both Texas and Colorado and purchased by urban police departments right now.

According to an in-depth Sunday feature on domestic drones published in The Washington Post Jan. 23, their use is still “exceedingly rare,” mostly because the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), which regulates airspace, still has strict rules requiring permission for agencies to use the drones in actual operations. Well here is the catch: according to the paper, the FAA already has plans to relax its rules over the next two years, allowing “police across the country to routinely fly light-weight, unarmed drones up to 400 feet above ground – high enough for them to be largely invisible eyes in the sky.”

Already, according to WaPo, there are 270 active FAA authorizations for the domestic use of drones: 35 percent of them are for the Defense Department, 11 percent for NASA and 5 percent for the Department of Homeland Security to monitor the northern and southern borders of the country. That leaves nearly half for law enforcement agencies, including the FBI, “as well as manufacturers and academic institutions.”

Not surprisingly, the United Kingdom – the big brother of Big Brother – is already using unmanned aircraft for all sorts of things. According to a recent piece in The Guardian, UK police were using microdrones for surveillance as early as 2007, monitoring the V Festival in Staffordshire. Apparently fire brigades also employ the little buggers over major blazes.

But police in the U.S. seem quite amenable to taking it to the next level. According to a Reuters report on Jan. 16, the Mayor of Ogden, Utah is looking to employ an unmanned dirigible surveillance system that is now being designed by the Utah Center for Aeronautical Innovation and Design at Weber State University, over the city. “We anticipate using it mainly at night,” Mayor Matthew Godfrey told Reuters. “The cameras have incredible night vision to see with tremendous clarity daytime and nighttime. It will be used as a patrol car. It will be used to go an check things out and keep things safe.”

Yeah, except patrol cars do not have night vision and forward looking infrared technology (FLIR) cameras and the ability to see into people’s backyards, moving quickly and quietly above the treetops and “fairly undetectable.”

Meanwhile, the Miami-Dade Police Department bought two T-Hawk drones two years ago. According to a recent report, the department has been testing and training with the tiny flying machine, and is close to applying to the FAA for airspace approval. Police Sgt. Andrew Cohen told Talking Points Memo this month that using the drone can help the department avoid putting officers in harms way (two of its officers were shot to death by a suspect just last week) by reducing the need for helicopters and helping to provide “real time information to commanders on the scene.”

“No other law enforcement agency in the country is using this,” said Cohen. “We’re forging new ground.”

You bet. It’s not difficult to see where this could logically go. Police have been using helicopters for years to chase down suspects and bust marijuana growers. As drones get more sophisticated in their surveillance capabilities for the military, so they will get more sophisticated for civilian law enforcement at home. And they will become more pervasive, one can count on it. To sweeten the deal, Honeywell, the maker of the T-Hawk leased its drone to Miami-Dade for $1, no doubt with the intention of helping to spread drone technology from department to precinct like wildfire.

“Once they open the airspace up [to drones], I think there will be quite a bit of demand,” Martin Jackson of the Airborne Law Enforcement Association told The Washington Post.

Right now, drones like the T-Hawk and the Draganflyer are on the low end of the spectrum. On the other hand, the “hunter-killer” Predator B (aka MQ-9 Reaper), responsible for hundreds of targeted killings in Pakistan and Afghanistan and now used by DHS for border patrol, can travel speeds up to 240 mph (compared to 45 mph for the T-Hawk) and can stay in the air for 30 hours (compared to 50 minutes for the T-Hawk), and carries with it an array of surveillance equipment (compared to the T-Hawk’s two cameras).

But the sky is indeed the limit, and the drones today will end up looking like something out of Toy Story 3 if the military has its way. Example: two years ago, the Air Force was supposedly working on a package of super-surveillance cameras for its drones called the “Gorgon Stare,” which would allow ground operators for the Reaper drones to see everything within a 2-mile radius via 12 different, simultaneously working camera angles.

At about the same time, reports Wired, super-secret DARPA was developing ARGUS (Autonomous Real-Time Ground Ubiquitous Surveillance Imaging System), to fit into a drone helicopter developed for Special Forces overseas. According to contract holder BAE Systems:

“The program’s goal is to develop a compact system combining a multi-gigapixel, high-resolution sensor; wide-field optics; an ultra-high-bandwidth, real-time airborne processing system; and a ground station for interactive multi-target designation, tracking, and exploitation. The airborne processing system can simultaneously and continuously detect and track the presence and motion of thousands of small or large targets over an area covering tens of square miles.”

More recently in January, the Air Force announced the “Blue Devil” project, which would involve a dirigible many times bigger than the Goodyear blimp and a “supercomputer” that would carry “up to a dozen different sensors, all flying on the same airship and talking to each other constantly…The supercomputer will crunch the data, and automatically slew the sensors in the right direction” and getting information down to the ground in less than 15 seconds.

“It could change the nature of overhead surveillance,” retired Lt. Gen. David Deptula told Wired.

It sure could – and it will eventually wreak havoc on our rights at home.

Police have already pushed the limits of surveillance as far as they can go with present technology. They are putting GPS trackers on individuals’ cars without their knowledge, and driving through parking lots remotely scanning license plates for infractions. They can use heat-seeking infrared cameras (FLIR) in helicopters (and soon, drones) to spot people growing pot plans behind closed doors, on private property – as long as they have a warrant (the UK has much different standards, as seen here). And according to the Supreme Court in California v. Ciraolo (1986), police do not need a warrant just to hover (in helicopter, blimp or drone) around your house and bust you for what you might be doing in your own backyard.

As with any other kind of military creep, Americans will likely get comfortable with the idea that the drones will be deployed for “specific missions” like busting cagey marijuana growers and tracking down dangerous suspects. What they won’t know until its too late, is that departments across the country will want to deploy them as much as possible, because they can, and as WaPo points out, operating a drone costs half as much as a black helicopter. So don’t be surprised if they start to replace traffic cops. In fact, they’ll give “neighborhood patrol” quite a new name.

The 100-pound gorilla in the room, of course, is how long it will take until the drones start carrying weapons. Where will it begin? Perhaps on the border – there are plenty of people in this country who don’t believe for a second that our “unalienable rights” extend to aliens. Hewing faithfully to type, one poster on the right-wing Lucianne.com website responded to The Washington Post report last Sunday:

Sinatra5: If we have all these ‘excess drones,’ maybe they should be redeployed to the Mexican boarder (sic) and stop the flow of illegals and/or unregistered democrats. A Hellfire missile is an excellent deterrent.”

At least we know that when The Reaper comes to call, there will be a few good citizens here to wave it on in for duty.

Author: Kelley B. Vlahos

Kelley Beaucar Vlahos, a Washington, D.C.-based freelance writer, is a longtime political reporter for FoxNews.com and a contributing editor at The American Conservative. She is also a Washington correspondent for Homeland Security Today magazine. Her Twitter account is @KelleyBVlahos.