Are Drones a Good Thing or a Bad Thing?

12 12 2012

The following article was first published in Governing magazine, and then later in Emergency Management magazine.  Written by Eli Richman, and published by Emergency Management on November 30, 2012, the article provides an overview of the use of drones by emergency responders in the United States.  It is becoming apparent that unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), or drones, can assist law enforcement agencies in a variety of activities.  As pointed out in the article, perhaps it could be helpful in finding a lost hiker in a national forest.  Closer to home, perhaps a drone could have been used a few years ago when local responders attempted to find a missing kayaker lost on a stream in Fort Bend County?

Drone owned by Montgomery County TexasFire first responders could use such a tool also; perhaps for getting a birds-eye view of a hazardous materials incident or major fire.  Think about how valuable the use of such equipment might be as hundreds of responders attempt to fight a raging wildfire in close proximity to a subdivision.  Emergency managers could use an unmanned aerial vehicle for conducting damage assessments after a hurricane.  It would seem to be an efficient way of getting needed information without putting responder lives at risk.  As a matter of fact, it has recently become known that NASA is readying a couple of experimental UAVs to track future storms.  Why?  To assist communities in preparing for the storms.  

For more information on NASA’s use of drones:   http://www.wired.com/dangerroom/2012/10/hurricane-hunters/

But, the use of drones is not without controversy.  Many individuals have privacy concerns, thinking that use of such equipment is confirmation that “Big Brother” lives and is trying to gain personal information from innocent citizens.  In addition, some politicians have indicated that the purchase of drones with homeland security monies is a suspect expenditure.  Hopefully, any legislation related to government’s use of drone technology will incorporate logical regulations that will still allow first responders to use UAVs for saving lives, arresting criminals, and assisting responders to extinguish fires.

No jurisdiction within Fort Bend County owns a drone.  As you will note in Mr. Richman’s article, Montgomery County does have a drone in their equipment inventory.  What does Fort Bend County do when we need to get a birds-eye view?  Probably, the first request would be to the Houston Police Department; we would request for assistance from one of Houston’s police helicopters.  Another possibility, would be utilizing the Civil Air Patrol (CAP); today, Texas has 3500 volunteer members who are active in Civil Air Patrol.  CAP is an outstanding resource for conducting inland search and rescue missions.  And, of course, contacting Montgomery County, and requesting mutual aid assistance would be another option.  Over the last several years, counties in the Houston area collaborate closely in matters of emergency response.

So, to give you an overview of this topic, please read the attached article.  It provides a balanced viewpoint on the issue of using drones.  If you have any thoughts on the subject, please feel free to make a comment on the blog site.

 

Drones:  The Future of Law Enforcement?

Eli Richman

Law enforcement officials say that’s not their intention, and they couldn’t use drones that way even if they wanted to. “We did not obtain this for the purpose of surveillance,” says McDaniel. “Our ShadowHawk’s maximum aloft time is only two hours and 20 minutes, and you would never fly it for that length of time to begin with.” FAA regulations prohibit drones from flying higher than 400 feet, and they require that drones remain in line of sight of the user. In other words, says McDaniel, if a drone’s around, you’ll know it. “It’s not like its 30,000 feet up in the air and you can’t see it and you can’t hear it. It’s going to be visible to the naked eye, and you’re certainly going to hear it.”

Current drone technology may not lend itself to stealth surveillance, but that’s why privacy legislation should be passed now, before it becomes a problem, say advocates. “While drones are new and novel and everybody’s worried about the privacy issue,” says Stanley, “we need to put in place some farseeing rules and protections that will cover every possible evolution of this technology.”

So far, no state has passed legislation regulating drones, although New Jersey took a preliminary step in June by introducing a bill that outlined warrant procedures for law enforcement’s use of drones. In August, the International Association of Chiefs of Police adopted guidelines for the use of unmanned aircraft. The guidelines call for transparency in how the vehicles are used, and say that any images captured by aerial drones and retained by police should be open to the public. In cases where drones might collect evidence of criminal wrongdoing, or if they will intrude on reasonable expectations of privacy, guidelines suggest police should obtain a prior search warrant. Those instructions aren’t binding, but they’re a good start, privacy advocates say.

At the federal level, the ACLU has recommended that government use of drones be banned except in very specific cases. One piece of legislation has been introduced in Congress by Republican Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky, which would ban domestic governmental drone use except in patrolling the border or in high-risk security situations. The bill currently lacks bipartisan support. While the ACLU says the bill isn’t perfect, its legislative counsel Chris Calabrese says the bill is “starting in the right place, and we’re going to work with him as he moves forward.”

In addition to questions about privacy, another concern is drones’ security. First, there’s the immediate worry that comes from allowing individually operated aircraft in domestic airspace, particularly in a post-9/11 world. That concern was borne out last year, when a man in Massachusetts was thwarted after attempting to equip several drones with C4 explosives and fly them into the Capitol and Pentagon. Second, civilian drones can be hacked, or “spoofed,” by a counterfeit GPS signal. (Unlike military GPS signals, civilian signals are not encrypted.) The spoofed drone thinks it’s in a different place, allowing the hacker to take rudimentary control of it. In a demonstration in June, the University of Texas’ Humphreys led a team of researchers who successfully hacked into one drone’s navigation system.

Regulating this type of vehicle typically would fall under the purview of Homeland Security, but that department has so far declined to regulate the UAV industry. That’s a major problem, says Texas Rep. Michael McCaul, who chairs the House Subcommittee on Oversight, Investigations and Management. “I find this to be a bit of a ‘nobody’s minding the store’ type scenario,” McCaul says. “No federal agency’s willing to step up to the plate, and when you have the [Government Accountability Office] saying the DHS needs to do it, I tend to agree with them.” Without regulation at the federal level, security oversight could fall to individual states.

For his part, Humphreys says he’s not overly worried about drone security. Spoofing a UAV requires a high level of expertise and very expensive software. But as with the privacy issues, it’s an issue that almost certainly will be exacerbated as technology advances. “What my nightmare scenario would be,” he says, “is looking forward three or four years, where we have now adopted the UAVs into the national airspace without addressing this problem. Now the problem is scaling up, so that we have more heavy UAVs, more capable UAVs and yet this particular vulnerability isn’t addressed.”

There’s no question that unmanned aerial vehicles could forever change crime fighting, disaster response and a host of other functions. Given the push from the federal government, it seems inevitable that drones will increasingly be a part of police assets around the country. But it’s important to address concerns over privacy and security now, says Humphreys. “Let’s let it go ahead,” he says. “But let’s be vigilant.”

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