The next time you look upward to do a little sky gazing, you may see something other than birds, planes and fluffy clouds.
That's because some in Congress are proposing that military drones be used in the United States for things like patroling the border, rescue and recovery missions and police surveillance.
A drone is an unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) that is used during military combat and controlled by pilots on the ground.
Obviously, drones are much safer compared to humans being used for exploring enemy territory, and that has been proven in places like Iraq and Afghanistan.
But when it comes to entities like local police departments using drones for routine surveillance missions, some are split on whether it invades the privacy of everyday citizens who aren’t committing any crimes at all.
It has been reported that the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has been tweaking some of its guidelines to make it easier for non-military entities to use drones in domestic surveillance missions.
While many people believe UAVs are good for police departments and border patrols to have, others point to the fact that money is the primary motivator in normalizing drone use the United States.
Many people believe that since UAVs aren’t currently used on a routine basis by law enforcement, there’s still a big opportunity for companies that make the aerial vehicles to get in on the ground floor of the industry and make huge amounts of money.
According to a report by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), the Customs and Border Protection agency has been using UAVs peridically since 2005. The report also indicates that some states have already been granted permission to use UAVs.
The Miami police department, for example, has already been doing test runs of its surveillance aircraft since 2011, after receiving FAA authorization.
Colorado received permission from the airway regulators to use its drone called the Dragonflyer anywhere in the United States, which was the biggest grant of access for a police department at that time.
The ACLU and other privacy groups have also expressed concern about just how technologically advanced todays aerial surveillance systems are, and as UAVs continue to be developed, it will be hard for the average citizen to tell just how invasive the aircrafts can really be.
It has been reported that the military is currently developing surveillance cameras that can see through walls, buildings and houses, and those same camera functions can and will be placed in drones, says the ACLU.
The report also points to aerial surveillance vehicles having night vision, powerful zooming capabilities and the ability to record any footage it captures.
Amie Stepanovich, of the Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC), a privacy group based in Washington D.C., told the Huffington Post that drones are so advanced nowadays, they have the potential of disrupting the privacy of law-abiding U.S. residents--which sort of defeats the purpose of law enforcement making the country a better and safer place to live.
“There are contracts between the Department of Defense and companies that are developing facial recognition technology in order to put that technology on drones and they talked about identifying dissonance in crowds,” she said.
“These contracts are talking about not only being able to identify who you are, but collecting the information when you’re engaging in this activity in the United States.”
Safer than copters
Those who support drones being used in the U.S. make the point that drones are safer than helicopters for aerial searches. Also, they're far less expensive and could dramatically lower the typical cost of tracking down a criminal--and because of these advantages, the FAA says there will be about 30,000 drones in U.S. skies by 2033.
Although full permission hasn’t been granted by the FAA for drone use in the states, UAV companies and Congressional supporters continue to push for legislation so drone use can be a standard line of defense by the year 2015.
ACLU staffer Jay Stanley believes that harsh regulations should be put in place to make sure drones aren’t being disruptive to everyday life and removing people’s right to privacy.
“Based on current trends, technology development, law enforcement interest, political and industry pressure, and the lack of legal safeguards, it is clear that drones pose a looming threat to Americans’ privacy,” he said.
Some states like Texas have suggested that putting defense weapons like tear gas or rubber pellets in drones can add a higher level of effectiveness.
“Those are things that law enforcement utilizes day in and day out,” said Randy McDaniel, chief deputy of the Montgomery County Sheriff’s Office in Texas, in a published interview. “And in certain situation it might be advantageous to have this type of system on the UAV.”
Although there haven’t been any reports about armed drones being used in domestic searches yet, McDaniel’s statement shows just how drones can be potentially used in the United States.