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U.S./ Drone surveillance: from joke to reality

LORENZO ALBACETE comments on the increased use of drones by the US government and police forces in their investigations and whether this is a violation of civilian privacy.

Aeryon Scout drone in flight Aeryon Scout drone in flight

It was intended to be funny. A month or so ago one of the famous cartoons of The New Yorker magazine showed a mature gentleman in bed with a woman, lying under the covers looking out of a window where an aircraft was hovering ready to follow what its controllers directed. I do not remember the exact words of the caption, but it was something like "It's my wife's drone!!"

The cartoon was intended as a joke, but it now seems to be more like a prophesy.

According to The Week, Predator drones — the same remote-controlled, camera-equipped aircraft used to hunt terrorists in Afghanistan and Pakistan — have been patrolling U.S. borders since 2005.

Small drones are being used to search for missing persons and track forest fires, and police departments in Florida, Maryland, Texas, and Colorado are testing drones for surveillance and search-and-rescue missions.

The Week
reports that last month, the Federal Aviation Administration, acting at the behest of Congress, relaxed the rules for deploying unmanned aerial vehicles. Police departments across the country can now fly drones weighing up to 25 pounds, as long as the aircraft stay within sight of the operator and fly no higher than 400 feet (so as not to get in the way of commercial air traffic. By the end of the decade, the FAA expects 30,000 unmanned aerial vehicles — some as small as birds — to be peering down on American soil.

Law-enforcement departments use them to patrol large areas, spot runaway criminals, and track drug shipments. A small police drone with a camera can be purchased for around $50,000, far cheaper than standard helicopters, which can cost $1 million or more.

Police agencies shopping for drones that fit the new FAA regulations can already choose from 146 models manufactured by 69 different companies in North America. Domestic drones are not armed with missiles and they range in size from a small airplane to a hummingbird.

They can be controlled via a laptop or even an iPad, while others can fly autonomously on a
programmed flight path. (A leading supplier of military drones has developed a palm-size hummingbird drone that carries a video camera and weighs less than a AA battery. It's capable of flying 11 miles per hour and landing on a window ledge, where it can record sound and video.)