A Need for Balanced Discussion about the Use of Drones

19 01 2013

Much as been written in recent months about the use of drones, both by the military and also by local governments.  For some the use of drones is an assistance to securing the nation and providing a practical tool to aid responders after a disaster.  However, for others, the use of drones is an invasion into civil liberties.  Last month, Senator Tom Coburn, released a study, entitled “Safety at Any Price: Assessing the Impact of Homeland Security Spending in U.S. Cities.” 

In his study of homeland security grant purchases, he takes the opportunity to focus on the use of drones by local governments.  Specifically, the study states that “the deployment of [drones] raises important questions about American citizens’ constitutional rights and the appropriate balance between improving security and freedom.  Federal, state, and local policymakers must carefully consider whether new law enforcement tools and strategies protect freedom or threaten civil liberties.”

The report then goes on to cite the Urban Area Security Initiative (UASI) grant program as a program that has helped local jurisdictions “purchase and deploy unmanned aerial vehicles across the country without careful implications of the long-term implications.”  It is unclear what is actually meant by this awkwardly worded sentence.  The report provides several examples of local governments that have purchased drones for law enforcement; traffic accident investigation; barricade situation; and search/rescue missions.  None of the examples document a use of a drone which actually invades any citizen’s privacy.  This is a bit disconcerting because much of the discussion of the report by the media clearly indicates a negativity toward drones.

I have recently blogged about the use of drones in the Houston region and have tried to provide “balanced” information about the issues surrounding the use of such equipment.  One was entitled “Are Drones a Good Thing or a Bad Thing?”—which can be found at https://blog.fbcoem.org/2012/12/12/are-drones-a-good-thing-or-a-bad-thing/  Another blog entry discussed the privacy issues raised by the use of drones in California– which can be found at https://blog.fbcoem.org/2012/12/17/drones-versus-privacy-advocates-in-california/  As with most anything in life, there are good things AND bad things about the use of drones.  The use of drones, as noted in the article reprinted below, provides a wonderful opportunity to use technology to save lives and limit damage to property.  It is a fantastic tool that can be used by first responders. 

Can a drone be misused?  I am sure it can and there are federal agencies that regulate the use of such equipment such as the FAA and DHS.  Reasonable regulation of the use of such equipment is completely understandable and should be done so that such equipment is not improperly used.  Throwing stones at the purchase and use of drones, as the above study appears to do, is not helpful.  It does not lead to useful discussion.  A balanced approach is needed.  As you will read in the article below, there is a tremendous amount of good that can be done using a drone during a disaster.  You will also see that the capabilities of such drones are nothing like a military drone.  They are far less capable of doing the bad things that some people think is possible.  On the other hand, they have the potential of doing much good for many people during an emergency.

The following is an article written by Brian Heaton for Emergency Management magazine.  It was published on December 12, 2012.  The article was originally published by Government Technology magazine.

Aerial Drone Aids in Chemical Train Derailment Response

The use of unmanned aerial drones may raise privacy and safety questions for some people, but the technology’s life-saving benefits are well worth the risk for Louisville Emergency Management Agency Director Doug Hamilton.

Faced with a chemical train derailment in the southwest area of Jefferson County, Ky., in October, Hamilton sent in an aerial drone to take photographs and observe the scene. The drone sent back valuable information that helped Hamilton evaluate the situation without risking the lives of emergency personnel who normally would have approached the area on foot.
Train+drone_photo
The derailment of the Paducah & Louisville Railway train occurred in an area where the tracks were elevated on a hill, and the side where the train derailed slopes down toward the Ohio River. As a result, responders could only get to the train from one side. The drone provided Hamilton’s team with a view and focus that they wouldn’t have otherwise had in the situation.

“It helped us refine our questions when the contractors submitted their plans for moving the cars, what the risks were going to be and what the evacuation zones were going to be, where we would not have been able to do otherwise,” Hamilton said.

The drone was brought in after a fire ignited as contractors were preparing to move a rail car containing butadiene — a flammable gas that is shipped liquefied and can cause irritation to the eyes, nose and throat, and drowsiness and dizziness. Exposure to butadiene can also damage the central nervous and reproductive systems.

That car was up against another car containing hydrogen fluoride, a chemical that can cause severe respiratory damage. The fire set up a potentially explosive situation where the toxic chemicals could be released in the air. Residents were evacuated throughout the area.

Hamilton explained that when the butadiene car ignited and the flame was hitting the top of the rail car holding the hydrogen fluoride, it began to boil the latter chemical. Without keeping the temperature down, a Boiling Liquid Expanding Vapor Explosion (BLEVE) could occur, which could hurl the rail car thousands of feet and vaporize the hydrogen fluoride, creating a toxic inhalation hazard.

While water at a rate of 1,200 gallons per minute was being dumped on the railcar for several hours to keep it cool and avoid an explosion, Hamilton felt his team had to have a better view on what was going on.

“Ordinarily, we as a jurisdiction don’t get involved in the ‘ifs’, ‘ands’ and ‘buts’ of how a contractor is going to deal with a hazardous materials response and clean up,” Hamilton said. “But as a result of the fire on Wednesday [Oct. 31], there was somewhat of a jolt to our confidence and more of an awareness on our level that we needed to be exactly clear on what the contractor intended on doing.”

Responders first called in a police helicopter to take fly-over photos. But while Hamilton said the photos from it were handy, the possibility of a large explosion made using the helicopter a risky move.

At that point, Hamilton was told an aerial drone called the Datron Scout was available. Provided by Drone Systems, the drone and the company’s president Joel Embry was on-scene on Nov. 1 to control the vehicle. Able to zip in and out of the scene in 20-minute increments, the drone took photos of the area without putting the lives of responders in jeopardy.

“It’s a hell of a lot better [quality] photos than we were getting from a helicopter, which can’t be as stable as a drone is,” Hamilton said.

Although the drone operated well, the deployment in this particular situation wasn’t perfect.

The initial plan was to use the drone for live video transmissions so that responders could evaluate the situation in real time. But the idea was nixed due to connectivity and compatibility issues between the drone and the incident command center.

Hamilton explained that the drone’s video operated using Apple’s QuickTime software. While that doesn’t seem too big of a hurdle, the equipment being used by emergency responders didn’t have the software. In addition, the state’s command vehicle also couldn’t connect to the video, and in the interest of time, Hamilton abandoned the idea and went with just aerial photos from the drone.

The images weren’t delivered wirelessly, however. The drone flew out to the site, took pictures and then had to fly back to where responders were located so they could download them and view the scene.

Rick Bobo, regional response manager for Region 4 of Kentucky Emergency Management, a division of the Kentucky Department of Military Affairs, said his goal is to make sure that the communication link between the state’s command vehicle and the drone is established for the next time the technology is used.

While Bobo wasn’t on the scene, he said state representatives tried to establish the uplink, but were lacking the proper equipment to get the drone’s video feed to function properly. But they now know what they need to make it happen and it’s just a matter of getting it completed.

Despite the video hiccup, Hamilton is fully on board with using an aerial drone during other emergency situations in the future. Because the incident lasted for 19 days, emergency personnel had plenty of time to talk about the drone and other applications where it would be valuable to use.

“If we had the drone on day one, we would have had a better appreciation initially of exactly what kind of a problem we had here,” Hamilton said. “The drone moved from down at the bottom of our grant request list to closer to the top.”

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Drones versus Privacy Advocates in California

17 12 2012

I recently posted an item about the use of drones by local municipalities, especially by first responders.  Today, I ran across the article below indicating that some individuals have great concerns about the use of drones by local governments.  The location of this dispute is in Alameda County, California.  As published by the Homeland Security News Wire, December 17, 2012:

Congress earlier this year passed legislation  ordering the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to accelerate the approval of the use of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) for law enforcement and other domestic purposes, and law enforcement agencies around the country are moving to purchase drones. Some months ago  Alameda County sheriff Gregory Ahern said the county would purchase a drone to help with “emergency response.” According to Ahern, Alameda Sheriff’s personnel tested a UAV late last year and gave a public demonstration of the machine’s usefulness for emergency responses during the Urban Shield SWAT competition in late October.

Not everybody is happy with the domestic use of UAVs.  Arstechnica reports that Sheriff Ahern and his staff will have to wait to buy their drone  as the American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California (ACLU-Norcal) and the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), have forced the Alameda County Board of Supervisors to pull a last minute agenda item from their meeting earlier this month which would have approved $31,646 in grant money from the California Emergency Management Administration. The ACLU-Norcal and the EFF are accusing Sheriff Ahern of attempting of securing funding for the drone without public scrutiny.

“Public policy shouldn’t be made by stealth attack,” ACLU-Norcal attorney Linda Lye told Arstechnica. Ahern denied trying to hide the purchase of the drone from the the public, and in  an interview with the San Francisco Chronicle claimed the UAV would not be used for blanket surveillance, as feared by opponents.

“This device is used for mission-specific incidents. We strive to gain the public’s trust in everything we do, and I would never do anything of this nature that would destroy the public’s trust beyond repair,” Ahern told the Chronicle. Documents obtained by the EFF say otherwise.

The documents show that sheriff department personnel have other intentions on how they would use the drone. A memo written by Captain Tom Madigan of the County Sheriff’s office in July, say potential uses for the drone include a range of policing uses that are exactly what concerns the ACLU-Norcal and EFF.

The memo reads:  The Alameda County Tactical Commanders were consulted, a regional group of SWAT team commanders throughout the County of Alameda. A UAV would be valuable to assist with barricaded suspects, surveillance (investigative and tactical) perimeters, intelligence gathering, rough terrain, suspicious persons, large crowd control disturbances, etc.

“UAVs have unprecedented capabilities to infringe on our civil liberties,” Trevor Timm, an attorney with the EFF, told Arstechnica. Timm added that drones can be equipped with cameras that can read heat signatures through a building or facial recognition programs.

Before a decision is made, the EFF and ACLU-Norcal want a public discussion to take place over the use of drones as well as a set of guidelines which would protect individual privacy and place limits on how drones can be used in domestic policing. The proposal would then be taken up by the County Board of Supervisors early next year.

The ACLU-Norcal released documents last week showing that the Sheriff’s office began receiving bids for drones from Aeryon, Lockheed Martin, and ING Engineering.





Humor – Drones and Santa Claus

15 12 2012

Santa Drone Humor





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.”