By 2025, enormous military-style drones – close relatives of the sort made famous by counterterrorism strikes in Afghanistan and Iraq – will be visible 2,000 feet above U.S. cities, streaming high-resolution video to police departments below. That is the bet that multiple defense contractors are placing, anyway, as they race to build unmanned aircraft that can pass evolving airworthiness certifications and replace police helicopters. And if that bet pays off, it will radically transform the way cities, citizens, and law enforcement interact.
There’s a reason big drones like the General Atomics Reaper aren’t already flying over the United States. The federal rules that govern aircraft in U.S. airspace are much stricter than those that cover U.S. military drones overseas. Many of the Federal Aviation Authority’s regulations were drafted for manned aircraft, long before unmanned flight across the United States was even a possibility. Now the FAA is working with the private sector to update its rules for the age of ubiquitous unmanned flight, and that will open the floodgates.
“The market won’t exist until the regulations exist,” said Matthew Scassero, director of the University of Maryland Unmanned Aircraft Systems Test Site. “The FAA was a little slow in coming around to the realization that we needed to get those in place.”
Unlike many new industries, which grow unfettered until emerging problems prompt regulation, unmanned flight needs relief from existing restrictions in order to blossom, Scassero said. Once that happens, the market for large unmanned planes could be enormous.
It might also represent a big problem for privacy advocates. Glimmers of that future battle are today already visible. In 2009, the military planned to launch JLENS, a 242-foot aerostat over Maryland. Original documents show that the unmanned blimp was supposed to have cameras, similar to aerostats deployed to Afghanistan. Members of the Electronic Privacy Information Center sounded an alarm. “There is a lot of potential for privacy abuse if a surveillance device can identify a human at five kilometers away,” Julia Horwitz, the group’s consumer protection counsel, told The Washington Post. JLENS went up without the cameras attached. (It later broke loose, causing havoc over multiple states.)
Reaper drones can also carry highly advanced jammer and electronic warfare payloads into battle and still retain their satellite link. That means a police drone could carry a wide variety of signals intelligence collection payloads as well.
Ultimately, individual police departments and the communities that they serve, not drone makers, will decide what sort of sensors to carry aloft, and what happens to the information gathered. But the relatively low costs of long-endurance drones, coupled with the growing capability of the camera equipment attached to them, will likely hasten new debates about police use of surveillance, and, in all likelihood, a lot of new arrests.