Aerial surveillance can be an extremely valuable tool to both the military and law enforcement.  On July 17, 1861, Thaddeus Lowe demonstrated the ability to conduct surveillance from a tethered balloon and signal messages back to the ground much to the approval of President Abraham Lincoln.  Military and law enforcement have had a “heads-up” ever since.

Nowadays, pilots and passengers are not required.  The popular word “drone” is used to describe a wide variety of unmanned aerial systems (UAS).  Most people conjure up images of a Predator drone, about the size of a small manned aircraft.  However, UAS design is getting smaller and smaller.

One model, the DraganFlyer X4 quad rotor UAS, is barely more than 2 feet by 2 feet in size.  Without landing gear (which is hard to see in flight), the unit is only 3 inches tall.  The electric motors make it hard to hear and the size makes it hard to see.

Not to be outdone, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) has developed a UAS so small and compact that it looks like a hummingbird and flies like a hummingbird.  The camera resolution is more than adequate for surveillance.  Not surprisingly, privacy and civil liberty activists are extremely concerned.

Adding to that concern is the absence of any coordinated privacy policy that covers the myriad of agencies employing these systems.  The Department of Justice, Office of the Inspector General recently released a report on the subject recommending the adoption of standard policies in the use of UAS.  According to the report, officials at the FBI and ATF regarded the use of drones in the same way as piloted aircraft and use the same guidelines.  That conclusion flies in the face (pardon the pun) of logic when you consider how stealthy these systems have become.

Most of that concern is unfounded.  Law Enforcement Officers, by and large, view UAS as a public safety asset, capable of spotting armed criminals ready to ambush officers.  “Drones” can be invaluable in finding victims and survivors in man-made and natural disasters.  UAS can also be a force multiplier when searching for lost children.

However, there is the possibility of abuse.  The public has a right to be free of unwarranted and unreasonable search and seizure.  At some point, agencies will be best served by obtaining a warrant.  The decision of when to get that warrant and under what circumstances is best made ahead of time for those concerned about their rights and the police who are concerned about their case getting thrown out of court.

Bruce Bremer, MBA is LET’s technology contributor. Bruce retired from the Submarine Service after 21 years of in-depth experience with complex electronic technology. Lately, he has been developing curriculum and technical documentation for lighter-than-air tethered surveillance craft (aerostats). He has an extensive background in fleet modernization and military analysis. He teaches electronics and alternative energy at a Virginia college. Besides his MBA, Bruce earned a Bachelor of Science degree in computer networking. He has been volunteering in public safety for many years.

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