FAA Ponders Allowing Domestic Unmanned Aerial Patrols

Published June 30, 2010

The Federal Aviation Authority is considering several requests from government and law enforcement agencies and private companies to allow unmanned aircraft to observe activities on the ground. Civil libertarians are voicing concerns that allowing unmanned flights grants a de facto license to spy on the public.

U.S. Homeland Security unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) already patrol the U.S.-Mexico border, and serious consideration is being given to allowing unmanned flights on coastlines and the Canadian border to intercept illegal immigrants and drug trafficking, according to a June 16 Associated Press story. Unmanned aircraft can be piloted via remote control from thousands of miles away, whereas drones are programmed for specific missions.

In addition, the U.S. Coast Guard has requested permission to use unmanned flights to patrol coastlines and in conducting search and rescue operations. Police departments would like to employ unmanned aircraft to capture license plate numbers and use in the pursuit of lawbreakers. Civilian uses listed for unmanned flights include tornado research and energy company surveillance of pipe lines. 

Clearing the Runway
The U.S. Defense Department asked the FAA to draft regulations for unmanned aircraft in 2006. The U.S. Senate passed a bill giving the FAA one year to develop a plan, and the House of Representatives extended that deadline to Sept. 30, 2013. Thus far the FAA has approved a Predator B remote-controlled plane to patrol outside El Paso, Texas and is considering authorization of a second UAV outside Brownsville.

The increased use of UAVs to patrol Texas borders has received support from Gov. Rick Perry (R), Sens. Kay Bailey Hutchison (R) and John Cornyn (R), and Rep. Henry Cuellar (D).

The FAA cites safety concerns as the chief obstacle to approval of unmanned flights in the United States. A big concern is that air traffic controllers and other airplanes rely on radar systems that may not detect drones and remotely piloted aircraft. In another decade or so, the industry is anticipated to switch from radar to GPS systems, which will allow UAVs to alert controllers and pilots of other aircraft.

‘Assault on Liberty’
Safety is not the first thing that comes to mind for some opponents of the domestic use of UAVs. Privacy issues are paramount for Jim Lakely, co-director of the Center on the Digital Economy at the Heartland Institute in Chicago.

“I’m a big fan of the show 24, which in its final season this year featured unmanned drones patrolling the skies. I thought that was rather creepy, but at least it was fiction,” said Lakely.

“The main ‘safety concern’ the public should have about this actually happening is the assault on their liberty,” Lakely continued. “However, it is the logical extension of a surveillance culture that is rampant in Western European countries and quickly catching on in America. Once you justify planting unblinking camera eyes on every street corner to ‘fight crime,’ how do you oppose a constant flying eye in the sky? Sometimes, the slope upon which we stand to protect our privacy and liberties against the state really is slippery.”

Safety Guarantees Questioned
Lakely is skeptical about the crime-fighting promise of UAVs. “Surveillance cameras are sold as a safety measure, something to prevent crime,” he said. “But they do nothing of the sort. The only utility of a surveillance camera comes after the fact, in possibly identifying a perpetrator of a crime. A cop on the beat, human patrolling, is proven to actually deter crime, and without spying on every public activity of the citizenry.”

Lakely added: “The public really needs to push back at this. Free societies don’t engage in blanket surveillance, and free people don’t buy into the idea that it’s for our own good.”

Adelaide Zindler, who operates Homeofficemommy.com in Ramona, California, says this is another element of a growing movement most people know nothing about.

“This is not surprising to me after what I’ve seen,” she said, pointing to instances of what she perceives as local governments “trying to pull people’s strings” when she worked in different county government offices.

Phil Britt ([email protected]) writes from South Holland, Illinois.

Internet Info:

“US Government Calls for Unmanned Drones to Patrol American Skies,” Chicago Tribune: http://info-wars.org/2010/06/16/us-government-calls-for-unmanned-drones-to-patrol-american-skies/