Drawing the Line on Drones

A lot of police departments will soon have their own flying robots. How far should they be allowed to go in shooting video from the sky?

Meet the Qube drone, specially designed for police departments.
Meet the Qube drone, specially designed for police departments. Photo courtesy of AeroVironment, Inc.

The International Association of Police Chiefs held its convention in San Diego earlier this month and one of the booths drawing a lot of attention belonged to a California company called AeroVironment, Inc.

It’s in the business of building drones.

One of its models–the Raven–weighs less than five pounds and is the most popular military spy drone in the world. More than 19,000 have been sold. Another of its robot planes–the Switchblade–is seen as the kamikaze drone of the future, one small enough to fit into a soldier’s backpack.

But AeroVironment is zeroing in on a new market–police and fire departments too small to afford their own helicopters, but big enough to have a need for overhead surveillance. So in San Diego, it was showing off yet another model, this one called the Qube.

The camera never blinks

AeroVironment likes to tout the Qube as just what a future-thinking police department needs–a flying machine that fits in the trunk of a cop car–it’s less than five pounds and just three feet long–can climb as high as 500 feet and stays airborne as long as 40 minutes.

Outfitted with high-resolution color and thermal cameras that transmit what they see to a screen on the ground, the Qube is being marketted as a moderately-priced surveillance tool ($50,000 and up) for keeping fleeing criminals in sight or being eyes in the sky for SWAT teams dealing with hostage situations or gunmen they can’t see.

A few police departments have already taken the plunge into what are officially known as Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs)–big cities like Miami, Houston, and Seattle, but also smaller towns, such as North Little Rock, Ark., Ogden, Utah and Gadsen, Ala. Most used Homeland Security grants to buy their drones and they all had to be specially authorized by the FAA to fly them.

So far, they haven’t flown them all that much because the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) doesn’t yet allow drones to be used in populated areas and near airports, at an altitude above 400 feet, or even beyond the view of the operator. But that’s going to change, with the FAA estimating that by the end of the decade, at least 15,000 drones will be licensed to operate over the U.S.

I spy a pool party

So how is this going to work? What’s to keep all those unmanned aircraft from hitting planes or helicopters or crashing into buildings? And what’s going to prevent them from spying on private citizens or shooting video of pool parties?

The FAA is wrestling with all that now and, given the need to ensure both safe skies and individual privacy, the agency may have a hard time nailing down regulations by August, 2014, the deadline Congress set earlier this year with the goal of opening up public airspace to commercial drones in the fall of 2015.

The feds are already behind schedule in selecting six locations in the U.S. where they’ll test drones to see if they can do what their manufacturers say they can do and, more importantly, if they can be kept from flying out of control. Later this month, however, at Fort Sill, Oklahoma, the Department of Homeland Security will start grading different drones on how well they perform when lives are at stake, say with a hostage situation, or a spill of hazardous waste or a search and rescue mission.

For a technology still largely seen as a deadly, and controversial, weapon for going after suspected terrorists, it couldn’t hurt to be able show how a drone can help find a lost kid or save an Alzheimer’s patient wandering through the woods.

Not so private eyes

Still, the idea of police departments or government agencies having access to flying cameras makes a lot of people uneasy. This summer, when a rumor started on Twitter that the EPA was using drones to spy on American farmers, it shot through the blogosphere, was repeated on TV, and then in condemning press releases issued by several congressmen–even though it wasn’t true.

As Benjamin Wittes and John Villasenor pointed out in the Washington Post earlier this year, the FAA isn’t a privacy agency. It’s loaded with aviation lawyers. Yet it will be dealing with some very dicey issues, such as how do you define invasion of privacy from public airspace and who can get access to video shot by a drone.

To quote Wittes and Villasenor:

“The potential for abuses on the part of government actors, corporations and even individuals is real — and warrants serious consideration before some set of incidents poisons public attitudes against a field that promises great benefits.”

Judging from a pair of surveys on the subject, the public is already pretty wary. Of those recently surveyed by the Associated Press, about a third said they are “extremely concerned” or “very concerned” about how drones could affect their privacy.

Another national poll, taken this summer by the Monmouth University Polling Institute, found that while 80 percent of the people surveyed like the idea of drones helping with search and rescue missions and 67 percent support using them to track runaway criminals, about 64 percent said they are “very concerned” or “somewhat concerned” about losing their privacy.

And they definitely don’t like the notion of police departments using them to enforce routine laws. Two out of three people surveyed said they hate the idea of drones being used to issue speeding tickets.

When robots fly

Here’s more recent research on flying robots:

  • No crash courses: NASA scientists are testing two different computer programs to see if they can help drones sense and then avoid potential mid-air collisions. In theory, an unmanned aircraft would be able to read data about other flying objects and change its speed and heading if it appeared to be on a collision course.
  • What goes up doesn’t have to come down: Two recent innovations could dramatically increase the flight time of both giant drones and handheld ones. Lockheed Martin has found a way to recharge its huge Stalker drones wirelessly using lasers, allowing them to stay airborne for as long as 48 hours. And Los Angeles-based Somatis Technologies is working on a process to convert wind pressure and vibrations into energy and that could triple the battery life of hand-launched drones to almost three hours.
  • Get your protest souvenir photos here: Russia is stepping up its drone program and will continue to use them to monitor street protests.
  • The face is familiar: The Congressional Research Service released a report last month suggesting that law enforcement agencies could, in the near future, outfit drones with facial recognition or biometric software that could “recognize and track individuals based on attributes such as height, age, gender and skin color.”
  • Talk to me when it makes honey: Harvard researchers have been working on a tiny–not much larger than a quarter–robotic bee for five years and now it can not only take off on its own power, but it can also pretty much fly where they want it to go.
  • Two blinks to get rid of red eye: Chinese scientists have designed quadcopters that can be controlled by human thought and be told to take a photo by the blink of an eye.

Video bonus: This promo video by AeroVironment sure makes it feel like the Qube drone could have its own TV series.

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