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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?”