Privacy SOS

Drones today, drones tomorrow

Drones exploded in the US public imagination in March 2012, when Congress directed the FAA to open US airspace to the flying robots. Since then, drones (or in military parlance, unmanned aircraft (UA) or remotely piloted aircraft (RPA)) have become a hot topic online and a target of activist and civil libertarian protest. Some commentators have gone so far as to say that the coming drone invasion of the United States (boomerang effect, anyone?) will spell the absolute end of privacy.

But the government's long term interest in drones has been kept out of the public eye  in the United States. The Department of Homeland Security has been testing drone deployment domestically since just after its founding in November 2002. According to the US military's Unmanned Aerial Systems Roadmap from 2007:

DHS identified unmanned aircraft as a high interest enabler for its homeland security and law enforcement functions within months of its formation in November 2002. In May 2003, the Secretary of Homeland Security directed a demonstration for evaluating UA utility in border surveillance be conducted, resulting in Operation Safeguard that fall.  DHS also established an internal UA Working Group under its Border and Transportation Security (BTS) Directorate’s Office of Science and Technology in 2003 to explore roles and define requirements that UA could potentially fulfill throughout DHS.  

The DHS drone working group commissioned a study on domestic drone deployment in 2004, titled "Unmanned Aerial Vehicle Applications to Homeland Security Missions" (not available online). Additionally, US Border Patrol — now a division of DHS — has been running drone surveillance operations in cooperation with the US military at the southwest border since the 1990s. The following chart shows a list of subsequent test runs of drones in the United States, jointly operated by DHS and the US military:

The military drone report also spells out how DHS plans to use its flying robots. 

Deciphering the above might require a degree in government bureaucracy-ese, but let's give it a shot anyway.

What does "removal" mean? Could it be removal in this sense? Shudder to think. And what does "Deterrence" mean in this context, exactly? What are "Specialized Enforcement Operations"? It seems pretty likely that "Officer Safety" could include the deployment of tazers or other so-called "less than lethals."

Do we really want police shooting weapons at us from the skies?

(Side note: this week police are using evidence gleaned from a drone in a criminal trial for the first time in US history.)

Military infatuation with drones trickles down

In September 2011, the US Air Force Chief Scientist, Dr. Mark T. Maybury, delivered a presentation on the state of "Remotely Piloted Aircraft" and its future military deployments. The presentation takes us on a journey from small drones to large ones, from current uses to future technocratic dreams, from human controlled robots to autonomous flying killers. The first slide illustrates the different kinds of drones in use by the US military today, shown on a graph depicting their respective sizes.

The next graph shows the rapid expansion of drone usage in combat operations between the years 1999 and 2011, in thousands of flight hours:

That is, the US military flew 250,000 combat air patrol hours between December 2008 and December 2009, the same number flown between the years 1999 and 2007.

It's important to remember that military drones are used to kill people, not simply to collect information. But if you only read military documents about the technology, you might come away with the false impression that drones enable a "clean" kind of warfare, wherein only the evil-doer terrorists are killed and all innocents are spared — owing of course to the United States' moral and technological superiority. The technology allows us to move out of the bad era of warfare, and into a technocratic battlefield dominated by "precision" weapons, the story goes.

The presentation therefore hovers on the issue of "collateral damage" for a moment, claiming that drones "enhance civilian protection" through "highly precise," "persistent" surveillance improvements enabling "precision strike[s]."

But if the Bureau of Investigative Journalism is to be believed, these Air Force comments on civilian deaths are aspirational or fictional, bearing very little relationship to reality. TBIJ found that the CIA's drone attacks in Pakistan routinely killed scores of civilians. (But that might have been on purpose; the report also alleges that the CIA purposefully bombed rescue operations and funerals.)

Of course the military wants to think of itself as an organization that works to protect innocent life whenever possible, regardless of whether or not those aspirations bear any relationship to the facts on the ground. But when the Air Force's internal commentary about its drone operations run directly counter to reports on the ground from independent organizations and journalists, we should be concerned. 

Further concerning is the manner in which the Air Force wants to see drone technology developed. Instead of moving in the direction of more oversight, the Air Force wants drones to become more autonomous, putting yet further distance between the human beings serving in the US armed forces and the killer robots they deploy (sometimes secretly) to various parts of the world.

The next slide shows where drones are "Today" and where they are headed, if the Air Force has its way, "Tomorrow."

Today drones are manpower intensive. Tomorrow they will be autonomous. (Er, really?) Today drones deploy full motion video. Tomorrow they will deploy wide area airborne surveillance, showing miles of territory in high definition.

Today human beings are "in the loop" with drone technology. Tomorrow we will be "on the loop." (What does that mean, exactly? How is it different from autonomous robots? Not sure but it sounds creepy.)

Today drones have "low situational awareness." Tomorrow they will have "Super" situational awareness — including thermal sensors, gunshot detection, and stuff we can't even imagine today.

Today drones are managed in airspace by human beings; tomorrow they will manage themselves. 

Laughably, the US Air Force Chief Scientist next asserts that civilian deaths from drones are the result of human error, and that once the robot overlords can control themselves, there will be, in his words "near zero collateral damage." 

Today, human communication with drones is constant. Tomorrow it will be sporadic (remember: they won't need us anymore!). Today the battlespace is "uncontested;" the US has hegemony in the skies. Tomorrow, the Air Force warns, the battlespace will be full of other forces' drones and the cyber landscape will be plagued with attacks on US systems. Today, he writes, the drones' missions are simple; tomorrow they will be complex, including autonomous refueling missions. 

He then points to a number of arenas for technological development. Brace yourself.

The emphasis appears to be on autonomy and complex systems. Ponder for a moment the implications of "autonomous mission planning," "behavior prediction and anticipation," "cognitive modeling" and "human-machine interfaces." 

But it isn't enough for the drones to be capable of more — on their own. We need to give them more roles to play, too! Thus: "Advancing RPA Roles and Capabilities."

Also, let's put stuff up in the sky that doesn't ever have to come down and can withstand low-altitude winds.

And let's make sure that the drones can see everything, everywhere. (We have the "Gorgon Stare" now, but soon we will have imaging systems that go far beyond, enabling "ubiquitous" ground surveillance.)

And forget Kyllo! Let's heat map entire cities with these things!

Current vs. future domestic deployment

The Air Force presentation also mapped out the current and future deployment of military drones on US soil. Click on the map below to enlarge it. (The black dots are current drone operations; the blue and green ones, future operations.)

That looks like a lot of military drones, right? Now consider how those drones will fly in a domestic airspace that is this crowded:

Given that the military's many different kinds of drones fly at varying altitudes, this management project looks like it will be a difficult one.

Finally, the Air Force is predictably excited about "micro air vehicles" — those drones that are very, very small and resemble bugs or birds. The following slide ominously reports that these tiny drones "open up new opportunities for close-in sensing in urban areas." 

For more on drones, click here.

And if you are in NYC this weekend, don't miss the sidewalk drone chats with activist Nick Mottern, depicted in the video below. He is also sponsoring a Drone Forum talk from 3:30 – 6:00 PM this Saturday, April 14th at Lafayette Avenue Presbyterian Church, 85 S. Oxford Street, NYC.

Please note that by playing this clip YouTube and Google will place a long term cookie on your computer.

© 2021 ACLU of Massachusetts.