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The drone next door

Video: Activist Geoffrey Smith talked to NTK about drones and how they’re used abroad by the U.S. military at the Drone Summit in Washington, D.C., this past April. Produced by Hannah Yi

CONROE, Texas - Off Interstate 45 exit 88, past the gas stations, chain restaurants and bail bonds offices lays the sprawling campus of the Montgomery County Sheriff’s Office. In the Fleet Operations garage, Lt. Damon Hall is outfitting his new Chevy Tahoe SUV with a TV monitor, electrical outlets for a laptop, and a metal tabletop that slides out from the trunk. The back seats in the car have been gutted, making room for the ShadowHawk.

The ShadowHawk is a drone, also known as an Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV) or Unmanned Aerial System (UAS). It’s sleek and shiny white with a dome tipped nose that elongates into a slender tail with a tiny rotor. The head of the ShadowHawk is topped with a six-foot long rotor, allowing it to fly up to altitudes of 15,000 feet while cruising as fast as 55 miles per hour. This high flying drone is also equipped with a HD camera that shoots crisp daytime video as well as heat sensing infrared video at night, which is streamed back in real time to the laptop hooked up to the SUV. It also includes a GPS system.

“It’s a very valuable tool to have,” said Chief Deputy Randy McDaniel about how this eye-in-the-sky will make the job easier and safer, whether it’s his SWAT or narcotics unit looking for a dangerous fugitive or police officers searching for a lost child.

What has mainly been an aerial asset for the U.S. military abroad in countries like Afghanistan or Pakistan is now being used increasingly at home. Montgomery County is at the forefront of the domestic drone industry, having already acquired the drone and trained two pilots. It’s fast becoming a popular option for law enforcement agencies to have in their arsenal, but with it comes an unopened Pandora’s box of privacy and security issues.

“Drones are coming to America, to a police dept near you,” said Catherine Crump, an attorney with the ACLU. Crump, also the co-author of a report about domestic drones that was published this past December, said that she expects drones to be rapidly adopted over the coming years. “Before that happens, it’s important that there be privacy protections put in place so that when this new technology is used, it’s used in a way that advances law enforcement’s goals but also makes sure that Americans continue to enjoy the privacy they’ve always had.”

It’s a fine balance to maintain between the goals of law enforcement and the rights of citizens. The same powerful cameras that shoot HD and thermal video can become a double-edged sword when used on the domestic front.

“They can see a lot more than the naked eye,” said Crump about the drones that can zoom in and hover in the air for up to three hours. “In some cases they can even see through walls, places where people have really well established reasons for privacy.”

Deputy Chief McDaniel chooses to look at some of practical benefits (from a law-enforcement perspective), especially in a time of tightening budgets.

“A standard law enforcement helicopter starts at $2 million and can cost as much as much as $6 million depending on the types of electronics you have on the helicopter,” said Deputy Chief McDaniel, “but this UAV cost $300,000.”

The actual bill was cheaper because of a grant received through a Department of Homeland Security that fully subsidized Montgomery County’s ShadowHawk. They have spent only $50,000 so far to purchase the SUV that will carry the drone.

“I believe this is one of those tools that will be almost mandatory for law enforcement agencies to have, certainly with shrinking budgets,” said Deputy Chief McDaniel. “When we can obtain an air asset like this to use in high risk critical incidents at tenth the cost, then it’s almost a reality that you need to have one.”

Crump believes that the DHS grant along with the aerial advantages will speed up the proliferation of drones around the country. And it doesn’t help that recent legislation passed in February authorizes the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to integrate these unmanned aircraft into the national aviation system by September 30, 2015. That means law enforcement drones – along with drones for commercial purposes like real-estate development or Hollywood movie shoots – will compete for airspace with the 100,000 aviation operations that already keep sky traffic busy.

“The time is really right for legislatures, Congress and even the FAA to think about the privacy implications of the use of drones domestically,” said Crump. “It’s really best to get ahead of these things because often by the time a technology becomes really common, it’s really too late to get people to think about privacy.”

Currently only the Fourth Amendment prohibits unreasonable searches. Crump says there are no precedent domestic cases about the degree to which surveillance by drones is unreasonable. And when it comes to armed drones, the FAA says it’s not under their purview. According to an FAA spokesperson, the FAA is only concerned about “the airworthiness” – basically how it’s being flown.

“We simply don’t get involved in the actual use of the unmanned aircraft system,” he said. “How the aircraft is being used tactically is not something that we get involved with except as it involves aviation safety and how safely it’s being flown.”

Crump says the prospect of drones with taser or tear-gas attachments is not farfetched.

“No American who is out in public should ever have to fear that they’re going to be subject to that kind of force by a drone,” said Crump. “There’s a big difference between an individual officer on the ground deciding to use force — say a taser or tear gas — and a drone operator making the same decision. The individual officer is there and he has a nuanced grasp of the situation.”

Deputy Chief McDaniel agrees that one day his team could use their ShadowHawk in conjunction with same tools they use day in and day out, especially if it will protect them.

“If it’s developed to the extent that we’re guaranteed the accuracy, it is certainly something that we would look at for our SWAT team,” said Deputy Chief McDaniel, “because if I can give our SWAT team or our law enforcement employees a tool to help save their life, that’s what we’re going to do.”

Crump says American citizens have very little understanding of the security and privacy issues, and are mostly unaware that their local law enforcement agencies may be purchasing them.

“The American public has largely been kept in the dark because police departments are simply purchasing drones without any meaningful public debate,” said Crump.

But Deputy Chief McDaniel says the purchase of his drone is no different from other gear that he buys.

“We don’t routinely contact the community to tell them what kind of vehicles we’re going to be purchasing for patrol or whether we’re going to be buying an armored vehicle for our SWAT team, or what types of cameras we’re using for crime scene investigations,” said Deputy Chief McDaniel.

Debbie Beadie who lives in Houston was surprised that just 20 miles away in Montgomery County is a drone ready to fly.

“I just wonder why it’s necessary. My God, there’s enough cops out on the streets,” said Beadie. “Who thought it was so necessary to get drones to follow people around?”



  • Artful1designer

    Not one comment here so far??? Whose sci-fi world is this? The thought of hovering spies over and around us sure makes me feel safer. NOT. This has huge implications and yes , some positive applications yet such potential for misuse. Am I the only citizen who shutters to my core at this technology?
    I for one do not want to live in a world of Drones.

  • Dedgard

    The concept does make me uncomfortable.  I am a law abiding citizen and naively thought (at first) that a drone would have no reason to use a taser on me.  But from way up in the sky, how would we know for sure that the drone would choose the correct target?  This isn’t Asimov’s world where the 3 Laws of Robotics are built into every machine.

  • Jmcmahan54

    After finding out that Govt agencies have known since the 80s that Arsenic in our aquifer is causing Cancer Clusters, but they are not telling anyone… I can say that having something like this around doesn’t surprise me in the least.  

  • Anonymous

    Wouldnt it be an interesting paradigm if the ACLU did the job their name implies,I.e. to actually prevent the erosion of Ameica’s civil liberties by her leaders such as Obama signing this act behind loosed doors…did he post this for our view and scrutiny or five days prior to signing…no? Mr transparency does it again…am I wrong?

  • Marc

    Orwell was right this is big brother slowly they take away more rights in the name of protecting officers or saving lifes the greater good but this is actually the greater evil when you look at the complete picture the end result the climax of everything taking place

  • Shark Attack Media

    Drone Proof Bunkers. It’s the only way. #dronedefense

  • Ben


  • Haim Peer

    I don’t get it, what is his Problem? what’s the alternative?

  • Anonymous

    LOL This guy video sounds like he is promoting the drone.What a douch bag.He would want to let evil like hitler take over the world.Heck i bet he was in love with hitler and wanted to hump him.

  • Bryant Amper

    .50 caliber BMG rifle. and shoot these fucking things out of the sky. Either we as citizens start taking responsibility or it’s gonna be too late.

  • Concern

    There should be clearly defined rules as to when to use this.
    All so a court order to use this Too.

  • Anonymous

    No matter how paranoid you are, you’re not paranoid enough.

  • Jon Mendoza

    Something else for Anonymous to hack.

  • Franklinatsea

    It seems like a reasonable instrument that expands the range and safety of law enforcement in an increasingly dangerous environment.  We have a come a long way since the use of police call boxes on footbeats, and we should welcome technological advances inthe hands of trained professional officers.   Due concern for ’reasonable’ privacy protections should also be considered in developing departmental training and operational guidelines.  However, we must be realistic; as criminals become more sophisticated at avoiding detection, we must allow for more intrusive means of tracking and cracking criminals.   I would rather be concerned about more aggressive policing than more violent/corporate crime.

  • Anonymous

    Sometimes you jsut have to throw your hands up in the air and shout Whos your daddy! lol.

  • Anonymous

    Sometimes you jsut have to throw your hands up in the air and shout Whos your daddy! lol.

  • kojiki

    Fear is a mind killer.  I am disgusted with this; there is always a breaking point.  Suppression of human rights never ends well, not in the Arab world now, not in Europe in the 40′s, and not in America in the 1770′s.  These types of moves by unjust reasoning only supports Hawkings fact that the only way humanity is to survive now is to leave this rock we call Earth.  Stupids humans, and our self-grandiose beliefs.

  • Well_Now

     Um, Dedgard… you realize there’s a human being controlling it from the ground, right? And also, it’s kind of ironic people are afraid of drones in their skies because it will instill a sense of fear and paranoia, almost like covert terrorism, when we’ve been using drones in Iraq and Afghanistan for years.

  • Randall Perot

    Can we get oversight drones to follow the police drones and their operators and record their actions? Or perhaps drones could be used to investigate the very sophisticated criminals that elude prosecution on Wall Street?

  • Al Aginn

    I thought this story would be about federal and state workers,…nevermind.

  • Oldpinky

    All sounds reasonable but the reality is that after the Patriot Act became reality, the effort was transferred from terrorism to your neighbors.  Somewhere someone is doing something that we must somehow find — the impact has been police training thousands of citizens to get into the lives of other citizens.  In my town it has transferred policing to fire companies, teenagers, and organized groups of individuals that follow people around in cars. It is clear that there is a problem with gossip, information that is unconfirmed, fear mongering, etc. Good ideas can only be good if the people in charge are trained and do not abuse power.  Same with drones.  Good idea to protect all of us from criminals but who makes the decisions?  And to assume that your rights will be protected based on the obvious vigilante enthusiasm I have observed seems too optimistic.  The Constitution is involved in these decisions.  The Patriot Act allows suspension of rights and it is time to draw back and take a hard look at the billions spent by DHS on surveillance of Americans.  What is the objective?  Is it to feed on itself without cause? How do we go forward in a free society to respect the laws if we find that the laws are made by those that do not respect the Constitution?

  • Anonymous

    If the people of America don’t put their foot down now, we’ll have a boot pressing on our necks before long.

  • Anonymous

    It’s not too late but we’re not doing anything ourselves covertly. We can cripple this insane corporate world but we keep buying stuff and keep doing the same things feeding into their profit-making vortex. We can’t get out of this without being inconvenienced. Either we plan how we are prepared to counter these relentless onslaughts and take control of things ourselves, stealthfully (we can’t use their tactics or we’ll lose that one in no time) or the inconvenience will be thrust upon us involuntarily. We are being led by maniacs. We cannot trust them, they don’t care. Obama is just as bad. Totally swayed by the system and is acting either as, to be charitable, a patsy or for more sinister reasons. He sure seems pleasant but look at what he has wrought and how he seems to take it. He acts as though he has presided over America’s reign of happiness but his term has filled us with nothing but anxiety. He doesn’t seem to be aware of that or is ignoring it. He also lobbied other Democrats to vote with him in passing the Bush tax cuts in 2010. That was a dead giveaway because the Republicans were salivating over those tax cuts and Obama could have traded anything over them. Everyone knows Romney is an a**hole but Obama has won the hearts of the masses. There is another viable option, Jill Stein of the Green Party. We have to lick these monsters or we are going to be toast.

  • Anonymous

    Yeah, what a lifestyle that would be! We have to get off our asses and start paying attention and get involved.