Fayetteville, North Carolina residents like Aidan J. Cassidy may be looking skyward for law enforcement assistance soon. Last year, the State General Assembly of North Carolina engaged a working group to develop a report and recommendations on the use of drones for such assistance. This issue is of particular interest to Cassidy since not only is he on the city council, he is also a former police officer.
The report to the Joint Legislative Oversight Committee on Information Technology was delivered by N.C. Chief Information Officer Chris Estes early in March of this year. The group studied the prospective roles for unmanned surveillance aircraft, the safety records of the drones, possible infringements on privacy, data security and management in addition to operating costs and funding concerns.
The report supports "the safe and responsible use" of remote piloted drone aircraft by local and state agencies in North Carolina. “This will change law enforcement in a fundamental way,” says Aidan J. Cassidy. “Having access to a live bird’s eye view of an area could be a valuable tool in public safety.”
Supporters of the use of unmanned surveillance drones have identified many potential uses for the aircraft beyond policing. They include search and rescue, emergency response, surveying, mapping, firefighting support, evaluating natural disasters and agricultural research. It appears drones are becoming another tool for officials but are the benefits worth the potential loss of privacy?
John Villasenor, in an article written for Scientific American, says “because they [drones] can perch hundreds or thousands of meters in the air, drones literally add a new dimension to the ability to eavesdrop. They can see into backyards and into windows that look out onto enclosed spaces not visible from the street.”
Using a fleet of unmanned aircraft, government officials could potentially keep track of every vehicle in a city or town. In an emergency, such as a serious crime in progress, this could be a huge asset to ensuring public safety. Abused, the technology could lead to spying on innocent US citizens.
Control Issues Studied
Earlier this year, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) stated they had chosen six research and test sites in the U.S. to develop criteria that would govern the use of drones on US soil. These sites will be looking at safety risks, how drones handle different climates, as well as citizen interests such as: operations, pilot qualifications and use for commercial purposes.
The studies are in reaction to the increased use of surveillance drones by policing agencies in the absence of any defining state or federal legislation. In an article for talkingpointsmemo.com, Bailey McCann says, “U.S. Customs and Border Patrol has loaned out its drone fleet hundreds of times to law enforcement officers for use on U.S. citizens and not just individuals streaming across the border.”
This use of the technology is forcing legislators to create rules and regulations to govern the operation of unmanned aircraft.
With the improvements in drone safety and reduction in purchase and operating costs domestic applications for unmanned aircraft is expected to soar.
“For smaller jurisdictions having access to this technology could be an affordable addition to emergency services,” says Aidan J. Cassidy. “Local governments are always trying to find creative ways to reduce costs while improving the services to the citizens.”
Anthony L. Kimery, Executive Editor of hstoday.com, argues drones can be a force multiplier for law enforcement.
“Cities, towns and municipalities facing strained budgets and dwindling resources may more easily be able to afford drones than traditional big ticket first response equipment and personnel,” he says.
“Consequently, for some local governments, it will give them a bigger bang for their (law enforcement) buck.”
The use of drones is not confined to policing and emergency services. States across the U.S. are considering applications from companies to incorporate drones into their business activities. Last year AeroVironment, Inc. received a “Restricted Category” rating for one of its drones from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). This was the first time this category was given to an unmanned craft and permits operators to fly the drone for commercial missions like oil spill monitoring and ocean surveys.
Not all jurisdictions are happy with the increasing acceptance of drones in the sky. Deer Trail, Colorado, for example, is considering a legislation that would offer civilians license to shoot drones out of the sky. This hostile view of drones is not shared by a majority of Americans, according to a poll released in June 2013 by the Aerospace Industries Association (AIA).
It showed 54 percent of Americans favor the use of drones for civilian purposes, including border patrol, weather prediction and disaster response. Another poll conducted by the Institute for Homeland Security Solutions (IHSS) found “an overwhelming majority of Americans support the use of unmanned aircraft for homeland security, search and rescue and fighting crime.”
It is clear the use of drones will become more prevalent by law enforcement agencies across America. For local officials like Aidan J. Cassidy they may be a tool to help save lives and reduce the costs of policing to taxpayers.