The ubiquity of military-grade drone tech

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News channels and social media posts on recent protests across the United States have been filled with images and information about the militarized responses by law enforcement agencies. Images of police officers with military-grade weapons and tactics usually seen only in war zones have been striking to observers in and outside of the US.

Still, the flying of the Predator B drone over Minneapolis by U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) at the end of May signaled the further encroachment of military technology into civilian spaces. As more countries acquire military drones, we need to monitor their use in domestic law enforcement.

Drone use expanding

The General Atomics Predator B drone is one of eight drones currently used by the CBP. Equipped with long-range cameras and sensors, this unarmed drone is used for surveillance. The particular drone that flew over Minneapolis usually flies along the U.S.-Canada border.

The Predator B belongs to a family of drones that includes the U.S. Air Force MQ-9 Reaper, used by the United States in military actions in Afghanistan and Iraq. So the drone’s presence over a U.S. city caused some consternation when noticed by journalists and plane spotters. While It is not yet clear who ordered the drone into action in this instance, several members of the U.S. Congress have written a letter asking about the use of government assets, including those of the CBP, in such circumstances.

It’s easy to see the appeal of drones for law enforcement agencies. The Predator B can surveil an area for 21 hours. In general, drones are “versatile, undetectable, and relatively inexpensive, and they can link together data from multiple sources.” In other words, drones equipped with different technologies can gather more detailed information on areas under observation. In a statement to Recode, federal authorities noted that the Predator flown over Minneapolis provided “live video feed to ground law enforcement, giving them situational awareness.”

According to a spokesperson, the CBP routinely conducts operations with local, state, and federal law-enforcement agencies. Thus it seems likely that CBP drones have been used across the United States. While CBP drone surveillance is restricted to a 100-mile border zone, the CBP has collected footage well beyond this zone. (Minneapolis is 455 miles or 732 kilometres from the border with Canada.)

Other countries also use drones as part of their aerial surveillance of borders and for domestic law enforcement. While most of the drones used in domestic settings are smaller the types of systems becoming available and acquired by different countries are diversifying. According to the March 2020 Drone Databook from the Center for the Study of the Drone at Bard College, some 102 countries have approximately 30,000 military drones. The drones are becoming more sophisticated; some, for example, have wide-area surveillance capabilities.

The need for vigilance

As the availability and sophistication of drone technology increases there is a need for greater vigilance about the types of systems that are used in domestic settings. How can flying military surveillance drones over peaceful protests be acceptable in free, democratic societies?

Civil society must pay attention to any normalization of the use of drones for border patrol and domestic surveillance and ensure that human rights are not endangered. As well, civil society must advocate for clear government policies and regulations that limit the types of drones used and the circumstances in which drones can be used.

Of course, drones can benefit society. For example, they can contribute to humanitarian and emergency relief efforts. But concerns about domestic surveillance and privacy are justified. Only when clear regulations and restrictions are in place can drone tech take is rightful place as a benefactor to society. More questions need to be answered about the technology that is available to law enforcement and how these systems are used.

Photo: Recorded flight path of Predator drone that flew over Minneapolis on May 29, 2020.

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