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Drones Over Manhattan: Stalking Gotham 24x7
Persistent surveillance by aerial robots stirs up bi-partisan ruckus in Congress
By Tom Green

“First we take Manhattan…then we take Berlin”
                                          —Leonard Cohen

It’s quite possible for a law enforcement officer—or a criminal, for that matter—to click on a Smartphone and to watch you and your friends casually strolling down West57th Street to the corner of 10th Avenue for lunch at the Roosevelt Deli. Standing in line to order, sitting to eat, right on down to every morsel you consume is all observable.

Similarly, a farmer with a Smartphone can search his fields for bug infestations or crops in need of fertilizer. A bridge inspector in Minneapolis can look for cracks in concrete and rusting metal or a cop in Peoria can search for a missing child.

Beating swords into ploughshares

“There’s no stopping this technology. Anybody who thinks they can put this genie back in the box—that’s silliness.”
Peter Singer, Brookings Institution

All of it is made possible by a piece of airborne technology that is now flying home from overseas wars—the drone. What usually is the stuff we see on nightly news programs reporting from Afghanistan is now coming home to roost in the U.S. domestic airspace. Drones are now frequently popping up in a variety of settings in a wide range of uses all over the United States.

Drone manufacturers, who previously built their drones for war, are now refocusing their drones or unmanned air vehicles for stateside duties. They range from miniatures the size of a humming bird to 25lbs hexapods to passenger-size big boys, like Boeing’s enormous Phantom Eye, which can stay aloft for four days. 

Some reports estimate that by 2020 there will be over 10,000 drones operating in the skies over America. The FAA’s own Aerospace Forecast Fiscal Years 2011-2030 projects 30,000 will ply US skies by 2030.

But will ploughshares become swords?

Of course, it’s great fodder for conspiracy theorists who reckon the real-world coming of Hollywood’s Skynet as police departments conduct persistent surveillance, 24x7 over high crime areas or anywhere else they so choose. As Republican congressman Jeff Landry from Louisiana sees it, “It’s raising an alarm with the American public.” Indeed. Drones, more than any other robot, have awakened the public’s realization that machines are entering daily life and that they are here to stay.

drones at work

The pros and cons over invasion of privacy from domestic drone use are rampant and are now gaining intense scrutiny from both liberal and conservative organizations and the general public.

“There’s no stopping this technology,” said Peter Singer, a Senior Fellow at the Brookings Institution and perhaps the country’s foremost authority on drones. “Anybody who thinks they can put this genie back in the box—that’s silliness.”

The drones’ big break

The door of opportunity for airborne robots to access the U.S. domestic airspace opened wide on Valentine’s Day 2012 with the signing into law of the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) Modernization and Reform Act of 2012.

It now seems that the same people who voted for the FAA bill are now in a tizzy over the law’s implications, namely, airborne robots, commonly referred to as drones, surveilling their constituents. In an ultra-rare show of bi-partisan unity many Republicans and Democrats are now shouting from the rooftops in opposition.

In April, the co-chairs of the Congressional Bipartisan Privacy Caucus wrote to the FAA “to express our concerns about the law’s potential privacy implications and to request information about how the FAA is addressing these important matters;” and they’ve also been meeting to discuss legislation that would broadly address the civil-liberty issues raised by drones.

Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., introduced a bill to prohibit any government agency from using a drone to “gather evidence or other information pertaining to criminal conduct or conduct in violation of a regulation” without a warrant. Paul was quoted by USA Today, saying “I just don’t like the concept of drones flying over barbecues in New York to see whether you have a Big Gulp in your backyard or whether you are separating out your recyclables according to the city mandates.”

The new law seems honorable enough from its outside wrapper. The bill provides $63.4 billion to fund the FAA through 2015, including $11 billion towards the FAA’s proposed Next Generation (“NextGen”) air traffic control system. However, as the Washington Post points out the law “requires the agency — on a fairly rapid schedule — to write rules opening U.S. airspace to unmanned aerial vehicles [a/k/a UAVs or drones]. Rapid here means by 2015.

FAA signs off on hundreds of drone authorizations

Police drone

The FAA got the ball rolling much sooner: In May, the FAA announced that police and first responders were allowed to fly drones weighing as much as 25 lbs in the general airspace below 400 feet without applying for special approval.

In addition, the FAA has signed off on about 300 certificates of authorization for government agencies, universities and private companies.

The new provision makes it entirely possible for a company like FedEx to ramp up a fleet of cargo-carrying drones to ferry its packages all over the United States. But does the law also make it possible for drones to hang out over, say, Manhattan taking stills and video of everything anywhere at all times?

Certainly, and much more, answered Stephen Morris, founder of MLB Company, whose corporate website’s URL is spyplanes.com and who has been building drones since 1987.

Expert offers insider look at drone capabilities

Appearing at Stanford’s Center for Internet and Society for the 2012 Stanford Law Review Symposium, moderated by Ryan Calo, the Center’s Director of Privacy and Robotics, Morris admitted concern about drones overreaching into issues of privacy.

However, to hear Morris speak about drones over Manhattan, it seemed almost like, hey, no big deal. Persistent surveillance by “a team of drones,” as he calls them, might turn out to be very beneficial for public welfare.

Similar to a fleet of side-by-side lawnmowers, as he matter-of-factly described the action, drones would “mow” Manhattan with photography…high-definition photography, end-to-end, every thirty minutes. Flying at five-hundred feet with 26-to-1 zoom lenses would easily allow the drones to read the time on someone’s wristwatch below.

Data mining a Manhattan panorama

Software would then stitch together the “mowed” strips of photos into a single panoramic view. Far better than imagery from a satellite or Google Earth. The resulting Manhattan panorama, with sharp detail from street level to five hundred feet above the city, would then be uploaded to the Internet for any paying customer to data mine to their heart’s content.

Morris cited the panorama’s potential value to traffic control, emergency response, public services…anyone interested in an information-rich area.

He added that the drones would also carry stabilized video cameras for specialized surveillance assignments. They can be diverted either singly or en masse to cover and report on special events. And they are more maneuverable than a helicopter, and less expensive to buy and maintain.

He also noted that some law enforcement agencies, previous to the bill’s passage, had already applied for and had received waivers for the use of drones in the domestic air space.

In fact, national news carriers have already reported on drone participation in such events as in catching a North Dakota cattle rustler, and recording a Texas hog processor dumping thousands of gallons of pig’s blood into the local river. His point being that there are many benefits for society from drone sorties over America.

Further to a drone’s beneficial utility, Morris described a positive use in precision agriculture, whereby a drone was used to spot crops in need of fertilizer or suffering infestations or needing water. Information from the drone was relayed to robot farm machinery below that then moved to the affected area for crop treatment.  The end result being that the drone not only saved a portion of the farm’s valuable crop but also that precision agriculture saved on fertilizer and pesticides, and also conserved water.

No help from the Fourth Amendment

If privacy conservationists are looking for a shield against drone surveillance, there’s very little.
Supreme Court cases, California v. Ciraolo in 1986 and Florida v. Riley in 1989, addressing surveillance by law enforcement found that in both cases, that observations made from “public navigable airspace” in the absence of a warrant did not violate the Fourth Amendment.

As the Washington Post commented: “UAVs will be inexpensive and plentiful, that government operators might have broad legal latitude to use them for surveillance. Non-government operators may have even fewer constraints regarding surveillance.” Non-government includes corporations, businesses and individuals, and who knows what others: from sanitation department drones checking on trash collections to Mafia drones shaking down extortion victims, anything is possible.

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