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Drones – Friends or Foes?

By Tony Hallett, CEO, Unmanned Response


American law enforcement is front and center in the heated national debate on privacy and drone warfare. There are formidable stakeholders with deep-rooted motivations on all sides of these emotional issues. Most police officers follow the headlines with casual interest, unaware that the outcome of these deliberations will have a dramatic impact on their profession in both the near- and long-term.

Technology improves quality of life, increases productivity, and sustains a safe homeland. The Industrial Revolution (1760 – 1840) introduced machines. The Digital Revolution (1960s – early 21st century) introduced software. Today, the nascent Robotics Revolution has introduced sophisticated unmanned systems, commonly referred to as drones. These remarkable machines are deployed on land (unmanned ground vehicles, or UGV), in the air (unmanned aerial vehicles, or UAV), and on/under water (unmanned maritime vehicles, or UMV).

 Drones come in all shapes and sizes. Costs range from $100 to $100,000,000+. The robotics industry experienced astonishing growth through the U.S. military investment in combat drones during the War on Terror. As a result, the market matured rapidly between 2002 and 2012. Drones will continue to evolve through nanotechnology and advanced materials science, leading to even greater specialization and lower prices.

 As military drone inventories reached optimal levels, manufacturers began looking for new markets. Domestically, the Federal Aviation Administration prohibits unmanned commercial flights until UAVs are safely integrated into the National Airspace System. That won’t happen until at least late 2015. Exceptions were granted to public safety agencies on the basis that some military applications could be useful to first responders.

 Before law enforcement could fully explore potential uses, two camps of opposition surfaced – those opposed to the use of armed drones in warfare and those concerned drones will compromise privacy. Overnight, the 800,000 police officers in the U.S., most of whom have never seen or even contemplated drones, were being castigated in the media for wanting to use UAVs to spy on and shoot Americans.

 A frenzied response in several jurisdictions led to far-reaching restrictions or prohibitions on drone use by law enforcement. While some drone legislation is reasonable, such as updates of existing privacy laws, most focuses on restricting police use. Little or no attention is given to vandals, criminals, and terrorists. Interestingly, most of this legislation does not mention unmanned ground or maritime vehicles.

 Is this a privacy issue, or is this just a privacy-from-police issue? Law enforcement officers indeed conduct surveillance of people and groups suspected of criminal activity. However, low-cost drones will appeal to people who secretly peruse their spouse’s cell phone, voyeurs who peep through bedroom windows, and paparazzi that crash celebrity weddings, all a far greater privacy threat than police.

 Is this a weapons-control issue, or is this just a police-weapons-control issue? Police officers occasionally must use lethal force. However, weaponized drones will appeal to psychotics, violent criminals, and international terrorists, all a far greater physical threat than police.

 The long-term implications are unnerving. Technology is broadly adopted long before security or misuse is contemplated. Computer technology was adopted by business and academia long before most police departments even owned a PC. The emergence of computer crime caught police agencies off guard. Digital forensics wasn’t a widely recognized criminal investigation discipline until after 2002.

 Cybercrime would not be the top security threat facing America today if computer technology had been adopted as an essential law enforcement tool and recognized as a dangerous instrument of crime early in the Digital Revolution. By recognizing drones can be a valued friend and a formidable opponent, law enforcement can avoid underestimating the long-term consequences. But does it want to? Will it be able to?

 Extensive integration of drones into police operations is not on the horizon. Can a police chief commit money and manpower to a drone program when politicians, at any time, impose new restrictions or even ban them completely? Conversely, police agencies are not prepared for the inevitable onslaught of drone crime. The bad guys are already equipping and deploying drones. Imagine a street cop’s reaction when a citizen reports being robbed by an “armed, talking UFO.”

 Law enforcement must get out in front of drone technology or it will be used against society with unimaginable consequences.  

 The International Associations of Chiefs of Police (IACP) and the Airborne Law Enforcement Association (ALEA) have provided early leadership in creating public awareness and the integration of robotic technology into public safety agencies. They could use some help. Some good starting points include: “IACP Seeks to Sway Public on Unmanned Aircraft” (, 09apr13); “A Vision of Crimes in the Future” (Marc Goodman, TEDGlobal, June, 2012); “Armed Drones Could Be Protected By the Second Amendment” (Jason Koebler, US News & World Report, 21may13); and the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International (AUVSI) website.


Privacy in the Digital World