Drones set to transform future police work

While Big Brother has mostly been reduced to tracking reality TV stars’ frivolous exploits, the Orwellian state as imagined in the novel 1984 seems to be resembling our modern day reality – at least in the eyes of those who point to NSA surveillance programs as precursors to Newspeak and the Thought Police. Could 2014 really be the new 1984? Or are these exaggerations, playing on conspiracy theories, fear and the narratives of dystopian novels? Perhaps these new measures are necessary adaptations that can provide security in our ever-changing globalized landscape, where covert terrorism and unrealized threats could otherwise go unnoticed.

Up until now, surveillance programs involving tracing phone calls and accessing Internet metadata have largely existed intangibly, in an almost metaphysical spectrum of security, at least for the average Joe Blow. But that’s changing, as transformations will soon be far more conspicuous. With the widespread use of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) currently in the Middle East, and the unavoidable future of autonomous self-driving transport, drones may come to replace police cars currently roaming the streets.

Imagine a future where unpiloted aircrafts maneuver the skies doing the detective work.

Is this going to transform the crime fighting process for the better, making the police far more efficient and effective? Or will it simply provide another platform for government infringement as drones hover above rooftops, spying on people’s lives?

Mesa County – New Home of the Drone

Drones have already made somewhat of a splash in the realm of modern day police work, particularly at the Sheriff’s Department in Mesa County, Colorado. Since January 2010, the department has logged 171 flight hours with its two drones. Just over one meter long and weighing less than five kilograms, the sheriff’s department’s two Falcon UAVs are a far cry from military Predator drones currently being used in the Middle East. Totally unarmed and unmanned, the sheriff’s drones are solely equipped with high-resolution cameras and thermal imaging technologies. Yet their lack of firepower doesn’t make them any less intimidating.

While Ben Miller, the program’s director, insists that the surveillance of citizens is neither part of the agenda nor logistically plausible, it’s difficult not to be concerned. A good set of cameras is all you need to spy on the public, after all, right?

Actually, no. Not exactly.

Rather than zooming into apartment windows, the Falcon drones’ cameras are far better suited for capturing large landscape aerial shots. The planes’ thermal vision tech also has its own set of limitations. In a demonstration for Air & Space Magazine, Miller highlighted how the Falcon’s thermal cameras could not even distinguish whether the person being tracked on screen was male or female – much less, decipher his or her identity. It’s not about “flying around watching people until they do something bad,” Miller told the Huffington Post. So the Falcon UAVs are incapable of shooting down criminals or spotting someone in a crowd.

While this should serve to somewhat ease public fears and reaffirm Miller’s statements, it begs the question: if not for surveillance, what would the Sherriff’s Department use the drones for?

Drones: What are They Good for?

Drones could complement efforts in the country with search and rescue missions. Small, tactile and unmanned, these drones could help locate and save those lost in the wilderness or trapped in rubble after a natural disaster. Particularly when manned aircrafts or automobiles otherwise restricted from exploring an area due to terrain or vehicle size, drones could step in with no risk to the device’s pilot.

UAVs’ ability to fly autonomously through a pre-programmed grid pattern could also provide constant support for police throughout all hours of the day. This would prove particularly useful in cases with missing persons, as every hour counts towards saving a life. With the Sheriff’s drone program costing a meager $10,000 to $15,000 since its inception in 2009, all signs point to implementation, as this cost effective technological advancement should help bolster police and rescue-team efforts.

But while the drones grant the Sherriff’s Department an extra pair of eyes in the sky, they have proven less than apt when assigned to real life search and rescue missions. In two separate investigations last year – one involving lost hikers and, the other, a suicidal woman who disappeared – the deployed drones were unsuccessful in locating their whereabouts. Miller admits, “We’ve never found anyone yet.” He adds, “Four years ago I was all like, 'This is gonna be cool. We're going to save the world.' Now I realize we're not saving the world, we're just saving tons of money."

The drone’s battery life is another limiting factor. Falcon UAVs are only able to fly for around an hour before requiring a recharge. Despite failing to locate the missing people, the drones did cover huge expanses of land that would have otherwise required countless man-hours to replicate, overall accelerating police efforts and saving precious time. And with operation costs for the Falcon running between three to ten percent of a helicopter’s, it does make financial sense to continue investing in the project.

Along with strong public support for the use of drones as search-and-rescue tools, according to a survey by the Monmouth University Polling Institute, their adoption by police and rescue forces are only likely to increase in time – regardless of the Falcon UAVs’ mixed effectiveness. The Sherriff’s Department has also used the drones to capture images of crime scenes, monopolizing on the drones’ aerial photography. Compiled and rendered on computers by experts afterwards, these photos allow law enforcement to view crimes from whole new angles. Imagine the police with access to accurate 3D interactive models of where and how a crime was committed. “Zoom and enhance” may cease to be a ridiculous tech trick on CSI and actually take shape in real future police work. This could be the greatest thing to happen to crime fighting since DNA profiling. Chris Miser, owner of the company, Aurora, designing the Falcon drones, has even tested his UAVs to monitor illegal poaching on animal reserves in South Africa. The possibilities are endless.

Public Concern Over Drones

With all their potential for good, the Sheriff’s drone-adoption has met considerable backlash. In the aforementioned Monmouth University poll, 80% of people voiced concerns over the possibility of drones infringing on their privacy. And perhaps rightfully so.

Suspicions are undoubtedly spurred on by recent revelations about NSA spy programs and the constant stream of top-secret news released to the public through Wikileaks. High-tech drones equipped with powerful cameras flying about would likely intensify those fears. Many are even left asking whether the use of domestic drones by the Sherriff’s Department is all completely legal.

“Mesa County has done everything by the book with the Federal Aviation Administration,” says Shawn Musgrave of Muckrock, an American nonprofit group that monitors the proliferation of domestic drones. Though Musgrave does stress, “the book is pretty thin in terms of federal requirements.” That means the Sherriff’s drones are effectively allowed to roam free almost everywhere within the country’s 3,300 square miles. “We can fly them pretty much anywhere we want,” says Miller. They are not granted complete freedom, however.

At least according to the department’s policy: “Any private or sensitive information collected that is not deemed evidence will be deleted.” It goes on to say, “Any flight that has been deemed a search under the 4th Amendment and does not fall under court-approved exceptions will require a warrant.” So what falls under court-approved exceptions? What about covert FBI or CIA missions? Would the 4th Amendment still apply then?

Still, drones and UAV regulations are only in their infancy. Both legislators and police forces are delving into uncharted territory, as there isn’t a proven path to follow regarding the flight of domestic unmanned planes. This means there is plenty of room for errors as this experiment unfolds, with potentially disastrous consequences. “All it takes is one department to get some goofy system and do something stupid,” Marc Sharpe, a constable of the Ontario Provincial Police, told The Star. “I don‘t want the cowboy departments getting something or doing something that’s dumb – that will affect us all.”

Will legislation become more lax with time as UAV use and normalization grow? Especially when considering if, over time, private security forces or major corporations will be allowed to use drones. Perhaps even ordinary citizens would. Could drones, then, be the future tools for extortion and blackmail? Many look to 2015 for answers. The year will be a turning point for UAVs, as the US airspace will expand regulations and increase authorized airspace for drones (either operated by military, commercial or private sectors).


Bill Gates recently made headlines, dishing out some harsh truths about the future labour market. Gates warned that robots are coming after our jobs as humans become increasingly obsolete in the face of advancing technologies. With unmanned drones on the horizon, police officers appear to be of the first headed to the chopping block. 

Already, 36 law enforcement agencies around the United States are running UAV programs. Besides the prospect of major lay-offs, this could have far more severe ramifications on the justice system. It’s not exactly presumptuous to think that police UAVs may ultimately evolve beyond serving as search and rescue tools and aerial scoping agents. 

Fifty years from now, 100 years from how, how will we use drones? 

The prospect of replacing police cars and the officers that drive them with unmanned drones means that we are gradually removing the human element from the equation. The ability to empathize, rationalize, and be compassionate are distinctly human traits – ones that machinery, robots nor software can replicate (at least for now). Chad Posick of Northeastern University stresses that empathy plays a critical role in crime, policing and justice: “Showing empathy, we know, increases trust and confidence in the police,” writes Posick. “And when citizens have greater trust in the police during daily interactions, officers get more cooperation and find it easier to protect themselves along with the communities they serve.”

Will the public fall victim to a strict and ruthlessly unwavering interoperation of the law dictated through algorithms, codes and the insentient? Or, as UAV use grows and their role in crime fighting increases, will they help protect citizens? Will justice prevail?

Forecasted start year: 
2025 to 2030


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