In the skies above Afghanistan, high-tech Air Force drones hunt Taliban targets and relay information to military operators who sit poised with their fingers literally on the trigger. The armed Reapers have killed so many militants that they’re dubbed “the world’s deadliest drones.” Aircraft like these have become the signature U.S. weapon in the global war on terrorism, conducting surveillance missions and attacking targets in Iraq, Afghanistan, Yemen, and Pakistan.
Military officials believe that drones, cheap and easy to fly, may eventually replace expensive, manned warplanes such as the F-16. Defense contractors are testing next-generation drones that can take off from aircraft carriers, stay in the air for several days, and survey swaths of land bigger than Afghanistan.
Several of the new models have stealth capabilities, rendering them largely invisible to enemy radar.
But drones aren’t just for fighting terrorism overseas any longer. Here at home, a growing fleet of those robotic craft pursue two decidedly less violent missions: tracking people seeking to enter the United States illegally from Mexico or Canada, and helping to interdict ships ferrying drugs to American buyers. Customs and Border Protection officials say that their unarmed versions of the Reapers have led to more than 6,800 arrests and the seizure of about 39,500 pounds of drugs.
Now, police departments—in big cities such as Miami and in smaller ones such as Mesa, Ariz.—are testing other models of unarmed robotic planes with the hope of winning the Federal Aviation Administration’s permission to fly them over their communities. Miami, where law-enforcement officials believe that surveillance drones can help SWAT teams conduct high-risk missions more safely, is in the final phase of its FAA-mandated testing program. The police department hopes to receive federal approval by summer, which means that drones similar to those deployed in America’s wars may soon be flying over one of America’s largest metro areas.
The growing law-enforcement interest in drones represents a potential boon for defense and aerospace contractors, which are bracing for significant cutbacks to the Pentagon’s acquisitions budget in coming years. But the trend is also raising eyebrows among civil libertarians, who fear that drones would create new challenges to privacy by making it easier—and cheaper—for police departments to spy on citizens.
“There’s certainly a role for drones in law enforcement, but we don’t want to see them become elements of pervasive mass surveillance,” said Jay Stanley, a senior policy analyst with the Speech, Privacy, and Technology Project at the American Civil Liberties Union. “The specter of a flying video camera equipped with infrared and night vision buzzing over our cities raises serious privacy concerns.”
According to the most recent FAA data available, 273 government agencies, academic institutions, and private companies had permission to fly drones as of December 1. Agency spokesman Les Dorr said that because of security concerns, the FAA would not identify the police departments that had applied for or received approval.
In Afghanistan and Pakistan, the military and the CIA operate Predators and Reapers that look like conventional planes and carry laser-guided Hellfire missiles capable of hitting a moving car from thousands of feet up. Residents of Pakistan’s lawless border regions call the drones bangana, the Pashto word for thunderclap, because that’s what it sounds like when the missiles hit their targets.
The drones that Miami is testing are much less threatening. The city’s eyes in the sky are a pair of Honeywell T-Hawk Micro Air Vehicles that carry no weapons, weigh just 18 pounds, and can be knocked out of the air by a strong gust of wind. Similarly small and unarmed drones are being used or tested by Texas’s Public Safety Department, the sheriff’s office in Mesa, and the Queen Anne’s County sheriff’s office on Maryland’s Eastern Shore. “Our drone looks like a flying garbage can, and it sounds like a weed whacker,” said Sgt. Andrew Cohen of the Miami-Dade Police Department, a licensed pilot who has been overseeing the testing. “This thing is very, very noisy. It wouldn’t allow you to sneak up on anybody.”
Still, Cohen believes that the drones can be an important part of his department’s future. In an interview, he said that Miami’s elite special-response team—its version of a SWAT unit—would use them to get real-time imagery in hostage situations or in standoffs with armed criminals barricaded inside buildings. The city’s bomb squad could also use the drones, he said, to allow technicians to get a detailed look at an explosive device from a safe distance. Miami officials liken them to flying cameras.
The city has had the drones since August 2009. It bought one with a grant from the Justice Department and is leasing the second directly from Honeywell for $1 a year. The devices, which sell for about $50,000 apiece, are controlled by touch-screen laptops.
This article appears in the March 12, 2011 edition of National Journal Magazine.