January 5, 2013

New Drone Flight Records over the US released

January 5, 2013. US unmanned drone flights over American air space are no secret. In fact, the US military and the Dept of Homeland Security still need to file flight plans with the FAA prior to launching each drone sortie. Thanks to one vigilant watchdog group and their FOI requests, Americans now know the extent of the aerial spying program enlisted against them over their own soil.

Major areas of aerial drone activity based on FAA and other documents.

Electronic Frontier Foundation victory

A couple weeks ago, the Electronic Frontier Foundation obtained and published thousands of pages of domestic drone flight information from 2012. The organization touts its successes after filing Freedom of Information Act requests to obtain the records from the FAA and other sources. For the first time ever, the details of spying and military drone flights over the US include information from the US Air Force, the US Marine Corps, and a little known government program called the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency.

EFF explains that some of the government agencies and military branches were more forthcoming than others. For instance, the group writes, ‘The Marine Corps is also testing drones, though it chose to redact so much of the text from its records that we still don’t know much about its programs’. For its part, the Air Force has been testing drones over the US that include small hand-launched aerial vehicles like the ‘Raven’, ‘Puma’, and ‘Wasp’, as well as the larger, bomb and missile-launching drones like ‘Predator’ and the ‘Reaper’.

All of these vehicles and more have been traversing the skies over America throughout 2012. What exactly they were doing, however, was rarely divulged. Although, separate investigative reports by such publications as the New York Times have revealed that drone pilots often practice surveillance missions by following civilian cars as they travel across American roads and highways.

Local details

The report also includes details from drone flight missions over local towns and cities in the US. For instance, the USAF has flown the ‘ScanEagle’ drone, which has a 360-degree, rotating camera turret, in the skies over Virginia Beach. The Air Force has also been testing Boeing’s A160 ‘Hummingbird’ drone over Victorville, California. The Hummingbird can stay airborne for up to 24 hours at a time.

Perhaps the most futuristic and ominous disclosures came from USAF drone flights of its Reaper unmanned strike vehicle. The drones have been flying over numerous US cities including Lincoln, Nevada and parts of California and Utah. These next-generation Reaper drones are reportedly equipped with ‘Gorgon Stare’ technology, which is described as a 9-camera surveillance system capable of spying on an entire city at one time.

Even more troublesome is the disclosure that human beings aren’t always the ones receiving and assembling the photos and videos taken by the overhead drones. A science fiction sounding program titled ‘Mind’s Eye’ is being tested that can receive and analyze all aerial drone video feeds, using artificial intelligence to process and report each mission’s details. There weren’t any details indicating whether or not computers are carrying out assassinations and other targeted killings, or if those sensitive missions were still being carried out exclusively by humans.

Risk Assessment

One of the major concerns regarding domestic drone flights is the possibility of accidents or crashes. Military drones continue to crash in highly politicized areas like Iran and Afghanistan, while the newly released documents show the US isn’t immune from similar accidents. One document noted 8 drone ‘incidents’, assumed to be crashes, near-collisions or software malfunctions, over the course of 79,177 flight hours.

Another document titled ‘Risk Assessment’ lists 15 possible hazards and problems a drone flight may encounter, along with its probability, severity and risk level. The most likely incident was ‘Weather/Wind/Icing’.  While some of the less likely problems included ‘Conflict with other traffic’, ‘UAS Mechanical failure’, ‘UAS Software failure’, ‘Failure of Air Traffic Control Radar’, ‘Position error’ and others.

Not just the federal government anymore

While libertarians and civil rights advocates complain about the federal government and the Dept of Homeland Security using unmanned drones to spy on Americans over US skies, it’s local officials such as County Sheriffs and town police chiefs that are enlisting the aerial technology more and more.

The reasons listed by local officials in their attempts to obtain or use unmanned spy drones in their daily law enforcement duties varies widely, but most sound legitimate and beneficial, at least on their surface. For instance, the Queen Anne County, Maryland Sheriff’s Department applied for a drone license to search farms for hidden marijuana fields, as well as surveil suspected drug dealers and drug transactions. Gadsden, Alabama’s Police Dept also wanted to film drug transactions, according to its application.

Montgomery County, Texas wanted not only the drone, but thermal imaging capabilities – capturing imagery using body heat. Such cameras have the ability to reveal hidden individuals in the darkness, through tree canopies and even through walls. Local police want the technology to monitor their ‘high risk operations’ involving narcotics trafficking. Arlington, Texas may have beaten them all with regard to their ingenuity. They’ve officially requested the ‘Lepron Avenger’ aerial drone which is equipped with LIDAR imaging technology. These cameras are most known for being used in police speed guns, making some question whether or not Arlington plans to us military espionage drones to target local citizens with traffic violations from the sky.

Not all local law enforcement agencies are using their drone capabilities in a legal or ethical manner however. In fact, many have purposely violated Freedom of Information Act requests for even the most basic information, such as what type of drones are being used, how often, over what areas or for what reasons. Local municipalities guilty of erecting an iron curtain include Orange County, Florida and Mesa County, Colorado.

Not all local US officials have used their new aerial drone vehicles to target or otherwise victimize their own citizens. Some have come up with some really interesting uses. The Washington State Dept of Transportation requested a drone license to help monitor avalanches to speed up early warnings. Wyoming and the US Dept of Energy applied for a drone license to monitor methane emissions.

California and the US Forest Service have applied for drones which would be used to fight forest fires. And the University of Michigan even requested a drone. They have water buoys floating in the Great Lakes that until now, needed to first be found, then boated out to, and then manually moved. With an aerial drone, the University can move the buoys remotely by simply launching them up out of the water and dropping them down in their new desired position.

Resistance and push-back

Records also show that the FAA rejected a number of drone license applications, including one from the Georgia Tech University Police Department. Their application showed their drone flying in a high-traffic helicopter flight path without any ‘sense and avoid system’ to warn of airborne collisions with other aircraft. Otter Tail County, Minnesota was also denied a drone license by the FAA. In its case, the town couldn’t meet the minimum requirement for pilot training. To give an idea of how widespread drone flights are over US skies, the University of Colorado alone has received over 200 drone licenses so far.

All the unmanned drone flights over American skies haven’t gone unnoticed by local citizens across the country. Many are angry and condemn the intrusive espionage flights as an invasion of their privacy. Some, including a handful of street gangs in cities like Los Angeles and Chicago, have openly bragged about how they’d shoot down any unmanned drones caught flying over their turf.

In many rural areas across the Deep South, rumors abound about bounties being offered for anyone who can shoot down the first domestic spy drone. Others, specifically throughout Tennessee, Kentucky and the Appalachians, report shooting at drones flying overhead searching for secret marijuana fields. Like the moonshiners of past generations, it seems Uncle Sam and his G-Men still aren’t welcome on ole Rocky Top.

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