UAVs updateDay of wide-spread domestic drone use nears

Published 12 June 2012

So far, the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration( FAA) has issued 266 active testing permits for civilian-drone applications, but has yet to allow drones wide-scale access to U.S. airspace; law enforcement and industry officials say that it is only a matter of time before the FAA would allow the more than 18,000 law enforcement agencies and departments to begin to use drones for surveillance

If you thought that the use of drones in the war against terrorists is controversial, wait until drones are used more widely in domestic surveillance and law enforcement missions. The U.S. Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has already issued permits to several police departments to use UAVs, but the practice is not yet wide-spread.

The Daily Mail reports that on 23 April, Secretary of the Air Force Michael Donley issued a 30-page memorandum discussing the issue of drone use in domestic missions. Donley says that drones may be used to “collect information about U.S. persons,” and that the photos that these drones will collect may be retained, used, or even distributed to other branches of the U.S. government as long as the “recipient is reasonably perceived to have a specific, lawful governmental function” in seeking to have access to the photos (Andrew P. Napolitano, a former judge of the Superior Court of New Jersey, offers a different take on the legality of domestic drone use; see his Washington Times article).

Donley writes that the purpose of his memorandum is “balancing … obtaining intelligence information … and protecting individual rights guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution.”

Officials from law enforcement and the aviation industry, as well as security experts and some lawmakers, argue that the use of drones in domestic mission is inevitable. “It’s going to happen,” Dan Elwell, vice president of civil aviation at the Aerospace Industries Association, told the Seattle Times. “Now it’s about figuring out how to safely assimilate the technology into national airspace.”

The Mail notes that, so far, the FAA has issued 266 active testing permits for civilian-drone applications, but has yet to allow drones wide-scale access to U.S. airspace. The main reason is security: the technology to make sure that drones do not collide with each other or other aircraft, and that they do not fall in densely populated areas, either does not exist or is expensive.

Still, drone manufacturers say they are preparing for the day the FAA give a green light for domestic drone use, and they work on drone prototypes suitable for domestic use. California-based drone maker AeroVironment has been supplying the military with small surveillance drones, and it has recently developed a miniature helicopter drone, dubbed Qube, designed specifically for police use in urban settings. The company says it will find many customers among the more than 18,000 state and local police agencies for the miniature drone.

A typical helicopter used by law enforcement agencies in the United States costs about $1.7 million. AeroVironment notes the Qube will cost about $40,000.