In places like Pakistan, people have grudgingly learned to live with the psychological impact of omnipresent drones. They may hate and fear the incessant buzzing of the unmanned aerial vehicles overhead — and hate the United States all the more for having to hear it — but on a daily basis there’s not much one can do. This is the new normal.
It may not be too long, however, before the United States is patrolling its own domestic airspace with the kind of massive military drones that presently perform its surveillance and targeted assassination missions in far-flung parts the world. Following President Donald Trump’s announcement Monday that he is lifting an Obama-era ban on transfers of surplus military equipment — including vehicles — to police departments, it is worth looking at current predictions of what new weapons of war (and local law enforcement) could soon be hovering on the horizon.
“By 2025, enormous military-style drones – close relatives of the sort made famous by counterterrorism strikes in Afghanistan and Iraq – will be visible 2,000 feet above U.S. cities, streaming high-resolution video to police departments below,” writes Defense One‘s Patrick Tucker. “That is the bet that multiple defense contractors are placing, anyway, as they race to build unmanned aircraft that can pass evolving airworthiness certifications and replace police helicopters. And if that bet pays off, it will radically transform the way cities, citizens, and law enforcement interact.”
You bet. Most use of drones by U.S. police is currently limited to small, quad-copter type UAVs for surveillance purposes. This is what has recently been proposed in Los Angeles, for example. “The LAPD’s vision, if approved by the Police Commission, is to fly a small drone — measuring about a foot long and 7 ½ inches tall — during incidents such as standoffs with hostage-takers or barricaded suspects, bomb scares, or shootings where a gunman is still targeting people,” reports the L.A. Times. “The devices could help gather crucial information as such situations unfold, without putting officers at risk, Assistant Chief Beatrice Girmala said.”
Yet such airborne information-gathering devices are likely to eventually grow larger than their present hobby drone size, as regulation catches up with technology — with a little extra boost from defense contractors and their lobbyists.
“There’s a reason big drones like the General Atomics Reaper aren’t already flying over the United States,” Tucker writes. “The federal rules that govern aircraft in U.S. airspace are much stricter than those that cover U.S. military drones overseas. Many of the Federal Aviation Authority’s regulations were drafted for manned aircraft, long before unmanned flight across the United States was even a possibility. Now the FAA is working with the private sector to update its rules for the age of ubiquitous unmanned flight, and that will open the floodgates.”
At first, we can hope, the use of large-scale police drones will be limited to surveillance. As Tucker notes, “the biggest domestic opportunity is as a replacement for police helicopters. (…) The ability to silently monitor multiple suspects for days and nights on end without putting a human pilot in harm’s way would represent an enormous improvement in police intelligence and surveillance.”
But already, weaponized drones for domestic policing in the U.S. are also well on their way to becoming a reality. In North Dakota, in fact, they’re already legal, although they’re limited to using “less than lethal” weapons. After police used a robot to kill someone last year, though, even lethal drones for U.S. cops do not seem so far outside the realm of possibility — particularly because legislators in Connecticut have already been considering a bill to allow exactly that, although for another year, at least, it hasn’t passed.
Tucker seems to assume large, military-type drones for police will remain strictly tools for surveillance. “Reaper drones can also carry highly advanced jammer and electronic warfare payloads into battle and still retain their satellite link. That means a police drone could carry a wide variety of signals intelligence collection payloads as well,” he writes. “Ultimately, individual police departments and the communities that they serve, not drone makers, will decide what sort of sensors to carry aloft, and what happens to the information gathered.”
That’s a nice sounding, glass-half-full kind of prediction. Yet even so, Tucker’s own apprehension about the future of drones as a domestic law enforcement tool is apparent. “Even if the eye in the sky isn’t carrying Hellfire missiles, there’s something deeply dystopian about a machine whose cousin track Al-Qaeda across Afghanistan turned to track communities of color in places like Baltimore,” he writes. “The ability to continuously survey an entire city opens a wide variety of potential uses, and misuses, that will test communities’ comfort level with far more constant police presence overhead.”