Out with the Old and in with the Drone

The Role of Domestic Drones in Future Police Work

By: Hyder Owainati

While Big Brother has mostly been reduced to tracking reality TV stars’ frivolous exploits, the Orwellian state as imagined in the novel 1984 seems to be resembling our modern day reality – at least in the eyes of those who point to NSA surveillance programs as precursors to Newspeak and the Thought Police.

Could 2014 really be the new 1984? Or are these exaggerations, playing on conspiracy theories, fear and the narratives of dystopian novels? Perhaps these new measures are necessary adaptations that can provide security in our ever-changing globalized landscape, where covert terrorism and unrealized threats could otherwise go unnoticed.

Up until now, surveillance programs involving tracing phone calls and accessing Internet metadata have largely existed intangibly, in an almost metaphysical spectrum of security, at least for the average Joe Blow. But that’s changing, as transformations will soon be far more conspicuous.

With the widespread use of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) currently in the Middle East, and the unavoidable future of autonomous self-driving transport, drones may come to replace police cars currently roaming the streets.

Imagine a future where unpiloted aircrafts maneuver the skies doing the detective work. Is this going to transform the crime fighting process for the better, making the police far more efficient and effective? Or will it simply provide another platform for government infringement as drones hover above rooftops, spying on people’s lives?

Mesa County – New Home of the Drone

Drones have already made somewhat of a splash in the realm of modern day police work, particularly at the Sheriff’s Department in Mesa County, Colorado. Since January 2010, the department has logged 171 flight hours with its two drones.

Just over one meter long and weighing less than five kilograms, the sheriff’s department’s two Falcon UAVs are a far cry from military Predator drones currently being used in the Middle East. Totally unarmed and unmanned, the sheriff’s drones are solely equipped with high-resolution cameras and thermal imaging technologies.

Yet their lack of firepower doesn’t make them any less intimidating. While Ben Miller, the program’s director, insists that the surveillance of citizens is neither part of the agenda nor logistically plausible, it’s difficult not to be concerned. A good set of cameras is all you need to spy on the public, after all, right?

Actually, no. Not exactly. Rather than zooming into apartment windows, the Falcon drones’ cameras are far better suited for capturing large landscape aerial shots.

The planes’ thermal vision tech also has its own set of limitations. In a demonstration for Air & Space Magazine, Miller highlighted how the Falcon’s thermal cameras could not even distinguish whether the person being tracked on screen was male or female – much less, decipher his or her identity.

It’s not about “flying around watching people until they do something bad,” Miller told the Huffington Post.

So the Falcon UAVs are incapable of shooting down criminals or spotting someone in a crowd. While this should serve to somewhat ease public fears and reaffirm Miller’s statements, it begs the question: if not for surveillance, what would the Sherriff’s Department use the drones for?

Drones: What are They Good for?

Drones could complement efforts in the country with search and rescue missions. Small, tactile and unmanned, these drones could help locate and save those lost in the wilderness or trapped in rubble after a natural disaster. Particularly when manned aircrafts or automobiles otherwise restricted from exploring an area due to terrain or vehicle size, drones could step in with no risk to the device’s pilot.

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