Wherever you go in America, you are under surveillance. At any ATM, every public building, on all major highways, in many public elevators and even on the sidewalk in front of your neighbor’s house (if he has a security system), you are being watched. In addition, as YouTube and the nightly news have made clear, tens of millions of us are able at a moment’s notice to whip out smart phones and other personal electronic devices and start recording. The time of privacy is over.
So it is somewhat amusing to observe the current agitation in the news media and online regarding the introduction of drones to America’s skies. Drones, otherwise known as unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), are old news to anyone involved in national security. Modern drones first came to light in the mid 1980s when the Israelis employed them to sucker the Syrian Air Force into an air-to-air duel that saw a cost exchange ratio of 85 to 0. The U.S. military’s first serious use of UAVs was in Operations Iraqi Freedom and Enduring Freedom. The utility of drones, particularly for conducting intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) missions, was so obvious that the military has deployed literally thousands of them ranging from the hand-launched Wasps and Ravens to small tactical systems like the Scan Eagle and large platforms such as the Predator and Global Hawk that operate from runways just like manned aircraft. These systems have been instrumental in the fight against improvised explosive devices and have saved countless lives.
For years, U.S. proponents of drones have been advocating their use by federal, state and local government agencies and even the private sector. There is an enormous demand for domestic airborne ISR. The obvious example is along the nation’s borders and coastlines which total over 30,000 miles in length. There is no way of establishing persistent surveillance for much of the border except from the air. Performing the mission with manned systems alone would be prohibitively expensive. The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) has been operating a couple of Predators for several years now and has plans to acquire up to 24 more. The Coast Guard is looking at expanding its use of drones for everything from marine fisheries protection to search and rescue and counter narcotics.
Drones could complement or replace manned systems for a wide variety of domestic operations: environmental monitoring, traffic control, safety and rescue and land use data collection. We are all consumers of video footage shot by cameras aboard news station helicopters. Anybody remember watching O.J. Simpson’s famous Bronco ride? There have been a number of tragic fatal crashes involving police and news choppers. Aside from the potential economic advantages associated with the use of UAVs there is the prospect of reduced risk to human beings.
Before the FAA will allow the widespread use of drones in U.S. airspace, a number of issues will have to be resolved. Chief among them is collision avoidance. Another is the security of the drones; navigation systems in order to prevent hackers from interfering with a drone’s operations. There certainly are privacy and Fourth Amendment issues but these are no different for drone-based sensors than for the same technology deployed at ground level.
It is important to recognize that manned aerial surveillance by both the military and civilian agencies also has increased significantly over the past decade. In Iraq and Afghanistan, specially modified versions of commercial aircraft such as the Hawker Beechcraft King Air loaded with sensors and computers, have been instrumental in the counterinsurgency fight. DHS is currently acquiring a similar fleet to provide border surveillance. At the Farnborough airshow, Sierra Nevada Corporation and ITT Exelis unveiled a proposal called Vigilant Stare, “a manned aircraft-based, Wide-Area Airborne Persistent Surveillance system capability” aboard a Twin Otter aircraft that uses proven technologies and systems. The concept is to provide surveillance on a fee-for-service basis, thereby allowing customers to avoid the costs involved in creating and managing their own aerial surveillance capability.
The critics of unmanned eyes in the skies are late to the game. Ubiquitous surveillance is already here; the question of manned versus unmanned is a minor detail. Just wait until the local neighborhood watch acquires its own drone.
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