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Remote-Control Recruitment by Sexual Predators

@Tony_Hallett, CEO, Unmanned Response

Sexual predators are early adopters of technology. They embraced the Internet, which dramatically enhances their ability to engage and groom victims. Remote-control planes, copters, cars, trains, and boats (which are collectively referred to as “R/Cs” in this paper) also fit perfectly into their methodology.

  • Engage and Recruit: R/Cs are kid magnets. Predators can take one of these to a local park and will find plenty of children who are eager to engage.
  • Groom: Predators will quickly establish a common bond with children, spurred by “shared” fascination and interaction with the R/C.
  • Gifts: Predators will solidify their relationships by giving victims their own R/C to take home, show parents and friends, and prominently display in their bedroom.

Sexual predators are charmingly manipulative. “Do you like remote-control toys?” (bait) “Have you asked your parents to get you one?” (probe to determine if its a single-parent home) “Why won’t your parents get you one?” (emotionally isolate the child) “Would you like to operate the controls?” (offers excitement; exhibits trust in the child) “Don’t worry, its not hard to operate and I’ll help you.” (supportive; sets stage for physical contact) “Look at how good you’re doing!” (positive reinforcement)

A predator may position himself to “help” with the controls, providing the opportunity to experiment with (seemingly) nonsexual contact while the child’s focus is on the R/C. (For frotteurs, the contact is a sexual experience.) A predator with extra R/C batteries can continue this cycle of engagement, grooming, and contact for hours, exploring and exploiting the vulnerabilities of several potential victims and parents.

R/Cs will also appeal to stalkers and sexual voyeurs. Their powerful audiovisual “capture and transmit” capabilities enable R/Cs to be hidden near a park, playground, public swimming pool, bar, school, or workplace, allowing operators to observe and even follow unsuspecting targets.

R/Cs of all types and sizes are potentially high-tech Trojan horses. A predator can remotely activate on-board electronic devices to gain audio and video access from the R/C, even if it is located inside a target’s home. A tech-savvy predator can tap into a local wireless network and browse through files, email accounts, and chat sessions.

Acquiring an R/C is easy. Thousands of personal drones are sold each month and that number is rapidly expanding. A good R/C quad copter with a high resolution video camera costs about five hundred dollars, although models are available in all price ranges. Some companies offer conversion kits they claim will “turn anything into a drone.”

If an incident is reported to police, will officers realize that an R/C may be sending a live audio/video feed to a perpetrator? If an R/C is stalking a victim or a neighborhood, will the police conduct a stakeout and pursue the offending drone with their own R/C police copter?

The answer to both questions is “probably not.” Most law enforcement officers are not aware of the threats and capabilities of R/Cs. Less than 25 of America’s 18,000 state and local police departments have been granted permission by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to operate unmanned aerial systems. Until there is broad integration of unmanned systems into public safety operations, police officers will not have the familiarity or capability to effectively address this growing threat.

Consider this: If a police department wants to operate an R/C, it must first do the following:

  • Employ at least two operators (pilot and observer) who pass a training program approved by the FAA and pass an FAA second-class medical exam
  • Demonstrate operator proficiency on their specific R/C model
  • Apply for and obtain permission from the FAA (a Certificate of Authorization, or COA) to fly their specific R/C model – a two-month process at best
  • The COA restricts flight operations to a pre-defined area
  • The COA restricts flights to only daylight hours unless the operator has an FAA pilot’s license and instrument rating
  • Maintain meticulous logs of all flight activities

In contrast, if a sexual predator, even a registered sex offender (or anyone else for that matter), wants to operate an R/C for “recreational purposes” they must first do the following:

  • Nothing

No registration, no training, no tests, no approvals, no reports. Just buy and fly, day or night.

Same remote-control plane or copter. Two very different standards.

The regulatory complexities are not the only issues that discourage police departments from researching and deploying R/Cs. Wails of protests from privacy advocates and reactionary politicians have unfairly portrayed law enforcement professionals as everything from peeping toms to architects of a police-state. Why would a police chief invite public scorn, fight for a new line-item in the budget, navigate the regulatory compliance process, and place the R/C into service, only to watch helplessly as overzealous lawmakers outlaw the use of unmanned aerial systems by police departments?

Eventually, these and other challenges will be overcome. Until then, it appears likely that sexual predators, stalkers, and voyeurs will creep into the lives of unsuspecting victims using remote-control technologies while police departments are (as usual) handcuffed by politics, bureaucracy, and ever-changing rules.

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Ten Reasons Why First Responders Aren’t Buying UAVs

@Tony_Hallett, CEO, Unmanned Response

Spurred by military spending during the Second Gulf War, the unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) market has experienced sensational growth. As the conflict subsided, manufacturers turned their attention to the domestic market. A March 2013 industry report concludes “… agriculture and public safety are the most promising markets” for UAVs, estimating a $13.6 billion economic impact and the creation of 70,000 new jobs in the first three years.

The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) is responsible for the safe integration of UAVs into national airspace by September of 2015 as set forth in sections 334-336 of the FAA Modernization and Reform Act of 2012. The Act includes an exception that allows public safety agencies to immediately utilize UAVs if granted a two-year Certificate of Authorization (COA) from the FAA.

UAVs are remarkable tools that can assist first responders with a wide range of tasks. Yet, the latest data from the FAA show only 25 out of more than 65,000 state and local police, fire, and EMS agencies have applied for a COA. Why aren’t first responders integrating UAVs into their operations? At least ten clear reasons emerge:

FAA REQUIREMENTS. First responders who want to start a UAV program must navigate a complex, confusing, expensive, time-consuming, frustrating process to even apply for FAA approval. (Just finding a comprehensive list of requirements is challenging.) After spending considerable time and money, the COA application might be denied. If approved, it’s only for a two-year period.

VOLATILE LEGISLATIVE ENVIRONMENT. The image of UAVs has been badly tainted in the media resulting in a contemptuous attack on the integrity of the law enforcement profession. Irresponsible overreaction by several lawmakers (and at least one city mayor) shows that political understanding and support are fragile. Why buy a UAV today when your state legislature might ban it next week?

LATE ADOPTERS. First responders are neither impulse buyers nor early adopters of technology as evidenced by the dependence on legacy systems. Consider this: If a child takes a cell phone picture of a creepy stalker, most 911 centers do not have the technology in place to receive the photo.

KNOWLEDGE & EXPERIENCE. Most first responders are not familiar with the capabilities, options, and features of unmanned systems. There does not appear to be any UAV orientation embedded in academic curriculum or public safety training centers. Media coverage provides little substance. The only in-person exposure for most first responders is at crowded exhibit booths during conferences. While these encounters spark a novelty interest, they do not adequately demonstrate the capabilities or value of UAVs.

STANDARDS. Most public safety agencies (especially fire departments) deploy resources that conform to applicable performance, licensure, or accreditation standards. Moreover, agencies will need to adjust existing protocol to accommodate UAVs. Until unmanned systems are fully integrated into external standards and internal policies and procedures, they won’t be widely integrated into first responder operations.

RELIABILITY. There are five characteristics of any new technology that concern first responders: (1) It is more complex to operate than promised; (2) it can be hacked or virus infected; (3) the company that sold it won’t be around within six months; (4) it will malfunction/break in unimaginable ways within seven months; and (5) it will be obsolete within eight months.

LIABILITY. Public safety agencies will not introduce an “unknown” factor into time-tested emergency response protocols. The UAV failure (crash) rate is dramatically higher than for manned aircraft, a fact not lost on public safety risk managers.

PERSONNEL. Small public safety agencies will likely rely on innovators from within the ranks to launch UAV programs. What happens if the innovator leaves the department? Many large agencies must navigate personnel issues such as union work rules, assignment bidding, and reassignment of manpower.

SUPPORT NETWORK. First responders who see the value of UAVs have limited opportunities to share ideas, information, and insight with other public safety professionals who are operating or interested in unmanned systems.

COST. Most first responders have no experience with UAVs and, therefore, no reference point for costs such as RFP preparation, acquisition, training, insurance, staffing, transporting, operations, maintenance, and certifications. Since first responders are unfamiliar with costs and benefits, they are unable to conduct a realistic cost-benefit analysis.

The implication for first responders is disheartening. UAVs could have an immediate and dramatic impact on public safety training, planning, responses, rescues, and investigations. Polls show overwhelming public support for the use of UAVs by first responders. Sadly, because of the reasons above, few communities in the United States will benefit from this marvelous technology in the foreseeable future.

The implication for the unmanned systems industry is alarming. Several market research reports have painted an optimistic multi-billion dollar picture for the years ahead. However, the fact that only 25 of the 65,000 potential (public safety) customers in the U.S. have applied for a COA is telling. Underperformance in the public safety market may be an omen of similar challenges that lie ahead in commercial markets.

The integration of UAVs into the public safety market is being closely watched by many stakeholders. So far, there’s not much to see.