Further use of drone technology

September 2, 2015 |

Following from my earlier post yesterday about Fortesque using drones in the Pilbara Itnews reports in Rio Tinto to lean more heavily on drones  on Rio Tinto’s use of drones beyond mine monitoring into its wider operations such as inspection of infrastructure. It is also contemplating using drones for spraying weeds and monitoring fauna.

Meanwhile the new government in Nigeria is planning to use drones to monitor the movement of ships according to the BBC article Nigeria to start using drones to fight oil theft.  

Where drone usage provides legal challenges and buts up against other rights and considerations is in law enforcement such as its use in England as reported in  Cumbria Police to use drones to tackle crime (which accompaying video). Things get even more concerning when the legislature, or at least members of it, is considering permitting drones being armed, even if not with intentionally lethal, weaponary as appears to be the case in North Dakota according to Police Taser drones authorised in US state.  While the body of the story makes it clear that there is as much supposition as reportage about what is happening it is useful in considering what the potential is. And what is being contemplated by more robust members of legislatures.

It provides:

Criminals in the US may soon find themselves zapped by Tasers from up high.

That’s one of the possibilities presented by North Dakota’s House Bill 1328, which allows local police departments to equip drones with non-lethal weapons such as Tasers, tear gas and rubber bullets.

Controversy already is swirling around the new law, which went into effect August 1.

The original piece of legislation, as presented by state Representative Rick Becker, was aimed at making sure police obtained a search warrant to use a drone to seek out criminal evidence. But when Bruce Burkett, a lobbyist with ties to area police, was allowed to amend the bill, it was re-written to specify that drones could carry anything except weapons capable of lethal force.

Although Tasers are meant just to stun suspects with jolts of electricity, hundreds have died in the past decade as a result of the weapon. More recently, there’s been increased public concern about the militarisation of US police departments.

Becker will push for the removal of the non-lethal force provision in 2017, when the state legislature returns for its next session. He had expressed outrage at a March hearing, saying “there should be a nice, red line: Drones should not be weaponised. Period.”

But he said in an interview that he’s pleased that at least some form of drone legislation is on the books in his state.

“I brought this issue up in 2013, asking for a prohibition on all [drone-based] weapons, and it was opposed by law enforcement. So when it came up again this year, I was told they wouldn’t oppose it if there was an amendment” about non-lethal force weapons, says Becker. “When it passed, we got most of what we wanted. Before it, there were only restrictions, no laws.”

Regardless of what state police may want to do as a result of the new legislation, the high cost of sophisticated drone technology may keep weaponised police drones grounded in the short term.

The Daily Beast reported that the Grand Forks County’s sheriff department currently has two drones, both of which are on loan from California manufacturers. At present, they are only equipped with cameras.

Drones have quickly moved from hobbyist toys to commercial mainstays, used for everything from tracking animal populations to tending crops. Laws have yet to keep pace, with the US Federal Aviation Administration proposing a series of rules and regulations that have yet to be adopted.

“All these legal questions brought up by drones really are up in the air,” says Guy Haggard, an aviation attorney with GrayRobinson in Orlando. He says that in Florida, local legislators require police to obtain a search warrant before putting a drone in the air.

“The issue with [North Dakota’s] bill is that the FAA currently prohibits dropping anything from an aircraft, and a drone is seen as an aircraft and firing a weapon is dropping an object,” he says. “So what happens when a drone that’s been weaponised accidentally goes off in a populated area? I think this moves into the FAA’s jurisdiction.”

The FAA indeed has such as ban, but on civilian aircraft operations, which a police-operated drone may not include, says FAA spokesman Les Dorr.

“Law enforcement agency use of an unmanned aircraft would be considered a government aircraft operation, not a civil aircraft operation,” says Dorr. “A government aircraft operation needs FAA authorisation in the form of a Certificate of Waiver or Authorization (COA). We can’t speculate if an operation involving a Taser-equipped unmanned aircraft would be approved.”

Recently, the insurance giant Lloyd’s of London issued a comprehensive report on factors that might hinder the coming drone economy. Among them were consumer concerns over privacy as well as a lack of uniform drone-pilot training, both of which would appear to come into play when using drones for police work.

The bottom line, says Representative Becker, is “we just need to be aware of these issues, because drone technology is here to stay and we need to support our civil liberties”.


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