Tuesday, May 21, 2013
By MARK BRUNSWICK Star Tribune
LAKOTA, N.D. - The use of unmanned aerial drones, whose deadly accuracy helped revolutionize modern warfare high above the battlefields of Iraq and Afghanistan, is now spreading intrigue and worry across the plains of North Dakota.
Deputy Amanda Hill of the Mesa County Sheriff’s Office in Colorado prepares to use a Draganflyer X6 drone equipped with a video camera to help search for a suspect in a knife attack.
The Associated Press
A Draganflyer X6 is photographed during a test flight in Mesa County. It measures about 36 inches from rotor tip to rotor tip and weights just over two pounds.
The Associated Press
Amid 3,000 acres of corn and soybeans and miles from the closest town, a Predator drone led to the arrests of farmer Rodney Brossart and five members of his family last year after a dispute over a neighbor's six lost cows on his property escalated into a 16-hour standoff with police.
It is one of the first reported cases in the nation where an unmanned drone was used to assist in the arrest of a U.S. citizen on his own property, and a controversial sign of how drones, in all shapes, sizes and missions, are beginning to hover over American skies.
Far from just the menacing aircraft bearing Hellfire Missiles and infrared cameras from combat, unmanned aerial systems, the preferred term in the industry, now include products so small they fit in the palm of your hand and can look as innocent as remote-controlled hobby airplanes.
They can quickly scout rural areas for lost children, identify hot spots in forest fires before they get out of control, monitor field crops before they wither or allow paparazzi new ways to target celebrities. The government has predicted that as many as 30,000 drones will be flying over U.S. skies by the end of the decade.
But can drones fly in domestic airspace without crashing into an airplane? Can they be used in a way that doesn't invade privacy? Who's watching the drone operators -- and how closely?
"All the pieces appear to be lining up for the eventual introduction of routine aerial surveillance in American life -- a development that would profoundly change the character of public life in the United States," the American Civil Liberties Union warned in a policy paper on drones last year, titled "Protecting Privacy From Aerial Surveillance."
In the North Dakota case, fearing that the Brossarts had armed themselves, local law enforcement asked for the assist from the Predator -- unarmed but otherwise identical to the ones used in combat -- that's stationed at Grand Forks Air Force Base as a SWAT team converged on the property.
It put Rodney Brossart front and center in the debate over the burgeoning use of domestic drones, and the threat they may represent when authorities are given the ability to watch everything from above.
"I'm not going to sit back and do nothing," Brossart said recently, sitting in the shade outside his small house where farm equipment, trailers and the top half of a school bus sit in the yard in various states of disrepair. As drone use expands nationwide, he's worried. "I don't know what to expect because of what we've seen."
Groups from the Electronic Privacy Information Center to the American Library Association have joined to raise concerns with the Federal Aviation Administration about the implications of opening up U.S. air space to drones, as have Reps. Edward Markey and Joe Barton, co-chairs of the Congressional Bi-Partisan Privacy Caucus.
But the federal government already has been quietly expanding their use in U.S. air space. Even as the wars abroad wind to an end, the military has been pleading for funding for more pilots. Drones cannot be flown now in the United States without FAA approval. But with little public scrutiny, the FAA already has issued at least 266 active testing permits for domestic drone operations, amid safety concerns. Statistics show unmanned aircraft have an accident rate seven times higher than general aviation and 353 times higher than commercial aviation.
(Continued on page 2)