Will aerial drones become the future police car?

While Big Brother has been reduced to tracking the frivolous exploits of reality TV stars, the Orwellian state, as imagined in the novel 1984, seems to becoming more of our modern day reality. At least in the eyes of the many who point to NSA surveillance programs as precursors to Newspeak and the Thought Police.

Is it true then? Is 2014 really the new 1984? Or are these simply exaggerations made by the naive, playing on conspiracy theories, fear and the narratives of dystopian novels. Perhaps these new measures are necessary adaptations needed to provide security in our ever-changing globalized landscape, where covert terrorism and unrealized threats would otherwise be allowed to reign free.

No doubt, the issues are complex with no simple discernable answer.

Yet one thing remains true. Up till now surveillance programs, such as tracing phone calls and accessing Internet metadata, have largely existed intangibly, in an almost metaphysical spectrum of security. At least for the average run off the mill Joe Blow.

Things are changing though, as transformations will soon be far more in your face.

With the widespread use of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) 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 crime fighting process for the better, making the police far more efficient and effective in the process? Or will it simply provide another platform for government infringement as drones hover above rooftops, spying in on people’s lives.

Mesa County – New Home of the drone

It may surprise you to hear that drones have already made somewhat of a splash in the realm of modern day police work, particularly at the Sherriff’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 two Falcon UAVs at the Sheriff’s office are a far cry from military Predator drones currently being used in the gulf war.

Totally unarmed and unmanned, the Sherriff’s drones are solely equipped with high-resolution cameras and thermal imaging technologies.

Yet their lack of firepower doesn’t necessarily 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, can we really trust him? A good set of cameras is all you need to spy on the public after all. Right?

Well... no. Not exactly.

Rather than zooming into apartment windows, the cameras currently set-up on the Falcon drones are far better suited towards 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.

So the Falcon UAVs are incapable of shooting down criminals or spotting out 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?

What are they good for?

Well, a major hope is that they would complement efforts in the county 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 would otherwise be restricted from exploring an area due to terrain or vehicle size. All with no risk to those piloting the device.

With the ability to fly autonomously through a pre-programmed grid pattern, UAVs 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.

Moreover, with the Sheriff’s drone program costing a meager $10,00 to $15,000 since its inception in 2009, all signs point to yes, as cost effective technological advancement that helps bolster police and rescue-team efforts should surely be implemented.
Things aren’t always that simple though.

While the drones grant the Sherriff’s office an extra pair of eyes up in the sky, they have proven less than staller 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 – drones deployed were unsuccessful in locating the whereabouts of those missing.

Miller admits, “We’ve never found anyone yet.” Further confessing “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."

Another limiting factor is the drone’s battery life. Falcon UAVs are only able to fly for around an hour before needing to land and be recharged.

Yet, 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 helping to accelerate police efforts and save precious time. And with operation costs for the Falcon running between 3 to 10 percent that of a helicopter, it sure 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, adoption by police and rescue forces are only likely to increase in time - regardless of the fact that, presently, the Falcon UAVs are a mixed bag in terms of their effectiveness.

With the capability of taking aerial photographs, the Sherriff’s departments have also used their drones to capture images of crime scenes. Compiled and rendered on computers by experts afterwards, these photos allow law enforcement to see a crime from a whole new angle.

Imagine, the police having access to accurate 3D interactive models of where and how a crime was committed. All at the tip of their fingerprints. “Zoom and enhance” may cease to be a ridiculous plot point on CSI and actually begin to take shape in real police work in the future.

This could be the greatest thing to have happened 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 truly endless.

Public concern over drones

With all their potential for good, the adoption of drones by the Sheriff’s office has been met with considerable backlash. In the aforementioned pole conducted at Monmouth University, 80% of people voiced concerns over the possibility of drones infringing on their privacy. And rightfully so.

Suspicions are no doubt spurred on by recent revelations about NSA spying programs along with the constant stream of top-secret news released to the public through Wikileaks. High-tech drones equipped with powerful cameras flying about national skies will surely help intensify those fears. Many are even left asking whether the use of domestic drones by the Sherriff’s department is all completely legal?

Well, the answer to the question is simply Yes. “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. Although Musgrave does stress that “the book is pretty thin in terms of federal requirements.”

What that means is 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 that states, “Any private or sensitive information collected that is not deemed evidence will be deleted.” Even proclaiming, “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? How about covert FBI or CIA missions? Does the 4th amendment still apply then? There seems to be significant room for loopholes.

One must also take into account that drones and UAV regulations are only in their infancy. Both legislators and police forces are delving into uncharted territory, as there isn’t exactly a proven path to follow regarding the flight of domestic unmanned planes.

This means there is plenty of rom 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.”

Furthermore, with the impending growth of UAVs, and their eventual normalization, will legislation become more laxed with time? Especially when considering whether private security forces will be granted authorization to use drones with time. Or major corporations. Perhaps even ordinary citizens.

The uncertain future

Bill Gates recently made headlines, dishing out some harsh truth about the future labor market. The gist of it all. Gates warns that robots are coming after your jobs as human become increasingly obsolete in the face of advancing technologies.

With unmanned drones on the horizon, police officers appear to be on the chopping block. Already, 36 law enforcement agencies around the United States are running UAV programs.

Besides the prospect of major lay-offs, this will likely have far more severe ramifications on the justice system.

When looking further into the future, its not exactly presumptuous to assume that police UAVs may ultimately evolve beyond simply serving as search and rescue tools, and aerial scoping agents. 50 years from now. 100. How will drones be used?


The prospect of replacing police cars - and the officers that drive them - with unmanned drones means we are gradually removing the human element from the equation. The ability to empathize, be compassionate and above all, have emotions, are distantly human traits - ones that cannot be replicated by machinery, robots or software (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, increase 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.”

With the inevitable growth of UAVs and their increased role in the field of crime fighting, will justice truly prevail? Or will the public fall victim to a strict and ruthlessly unwavering interoperation of the law dictated through the algorithms, codes and the insentient. It’s not about flying around watching people until they do something bad.

Forecasted start year: 
2013 to 2022


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