Q. Are drones being incorporated into government agencies other than the military?
While the military has been on the leading edge of drone development, government agencies other than the military are increasingly looking to drones to carry out their work. For example, the largest drone fleet outside the Defense Department belongs to Customs and Border Protection. The United States has operated 10 Predator B drones for border control, six on the southwestern border, two on the northern border, and two at Cape Canaveral in Florida. The first use of drones by the agency took place in 2005. Border Patrol agents used them to watch over the US-Mexico border in areas that were inaccessible or dangerous.2
The use of these Predators, an unarmed version of those used in conflict, have not been without controversy. The civil liberties group Electronic Frontier Foundation filed a lawsuit that uncovered information showing that Customs and Border Protection flew 700 surveillance missions between 2010 and
2012 for other agencies that were not authorized to use drones for patrol purposes, like the Drug Enforcement Agency.3
Questions also arise as to the relative effectiveness of using drones for border control. The drones saw little of the expected airtime that the Customs and Border Protection agency had anticipated. The 10 Predators only logged 5,102 hours in the
2013 fiscal year, a quarter of what the agency had projected. The rate of use fell short of the agency's expectations that drones would be valuable in apprehending individuals illegally crossing the border. In fact, a 2014 audit showed that while costing $12,255 per hour, about five-times the amount anticipated by Customs and Border Protection, drones only aided about 2% of border apprehensions. A spokesperson from the agency defended the use of drones, suggesting that the data was misleading insofar as drones are used for the "big-picture" issues of identifying hot spots rather than tracking individual violators, although the audit concluded by recommending against the agency's proposal of spending an additional $443 million to buy 14 new drones.4
As the Customs and Border Protection agency's defense suggests, drones look increasingly appealing for law enforcement, and a number of state and local agencies share the sentiment. Drones can serve similar functions as police helicopters but at a fraction of the cost: $22,000 for a drone compared to between $500,000 and $3 million for a helicopter.5 The police force in Grand Forks, ND is one of about a dozen in the United States known to use drones. They were also the first police department in the United States to be granted federal approval to fly drones at night. As of late 2015, the police force had flown drones on 11 active missions since beginning to test them. One of these missions involved using thermal imaging to search a large field for two suspects. Another mission involved taking footage outside an apartment window in order to show that a man accused of stalking and raping two college students had a clear view from his apartment to theirs. Five missions involved taking aerial photos of the scene of a crime or traffic accident; in two missions a drone was used to assess the flooding of a river; in the other two missions a drone aided in separate searches for missing people.6
Other police departments are attempting to integrate drones into their policing strategies as well. In April 2014, the city of Lloydminster became the first city in Canada to use drones for speed and traffic law enforcement, with the city citing lower costs than existing approaches. That said, the city also recognized the potential anxiety that drones might create among a public that would not have the same predictability of knowing where photo enforcement units sit.7
Indeed, even the potential use of drones for law enforcement has unnerved the public. Even before being taken out of the box, the Los Angeles Police Department's plans to use two drones—obtained by the Seattle Police Department—for law enforcement met with enormous public backlash, driven by concerns about privacy. One organization, called the "Stop LAPD Spying Coalition," has tried to mobilize opposition to the use of drones for law enforcement, cautioning about police militarization and spying.8 In response, the LAPD has sought to assuage concerns, with the LAPD Inspector General promising a moratorium on drones for law enforcement and reporting that the drones were transferred to his custody where they would be secured, not released or used in any manner.
If the Seattle Police Department's experience with drones is any guide, the political headwinds against the LAPD using drones for law enforcement may prove too strong. Several years back, the Seattle Police Department had received a Department of Homeland Security grant to investigate traffic incidents, homicides, and hazardous materials with two drones. Ultimately, following vociferous public opposition, the Seattle mayor had to "pull the plug on a plan to let the Seattle Police Department begin use of two drones it purchased through a federal grant."9 Instead, the police department bequeathed its drones to the LAPD at no cost to the LAPD. The Seattle Police Department declared that it had worked with state and federal agencies to find a new home for the department's drones, transferring them to the Los Angeles Police Department, while not being under any obligation to repay the federal grant that had sponsored the original drone acquisition. Of course the LAPD proceeded to encounter the same hostility that their colleagues up the coast had received.