America Edges to Brink of Armed Police Drones

A county north of Houston made news in Europe at the end of October by taking delivery of a new “weaponizable” drone, a squat remote-controlled helicopter called a ShadowHawk that can fire Tasers or beanbags at people on the ground. Police in Montgomery County say the drone would chase drug smugglers or escaping criminals. Alarmed Europeans wondered if some aspect of drone warfare — so far a problem only for terrorists and other strangers in poor and distant countries — had come home to the First World.

“In the end the police have the same consideration as the military,” writes a columnist at Telepolis, a tech website in Germany, “namely that using drones in risky situations can keep personnel out of danger.”

Surveillance drones tend to be popular with border-patrol agencies in the U.S. and Europe. Dutch police use them to spy on pot growers. The British — who have soaked their own country in surveillance video — hope to use drones over the London Olympics in 2012.

But an armed police drone would be new. Montgomery County Sheriff Tommy Gage says his ShadowHawk won’t carry weapons, but the drone’s manufacturer, Vanguard Defense Industries, boasts that it’s strong enough to carry a shotgun or even a grenade launcher. The most relevant weapon for chasing fugitives might be the beanbag launcher. Its ammunition, though, isn’t called a beanbag; it’s a “stun baton.”

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“You have a stun baton where you can actually engage somebody at altitude with the aircraft,” said Michael Buscher, chief of Vanguard Defense, told Homeland Security News Wire. “A stun baton would essentially disable a suspect.”

Hold on — robotic flying machines trying to whack American citizens with beanbags? Has anyone thought this through?

Small-plane pilots argue that more drones in the air could lead to accidents, precisely because drones fly blind. A cop on the remote control will point his camera almost anywhere besides the direction of the flying craft. “Pilots said police controllers may not be able to see and avoid other aircraft in the area during a sudden police emergency,” writes the Homeland Security Wire, citing a 2008 report from the Government Accountability Office.

Germany has other measures — namely strict privacy laws — that complicate using drones even for surveillance. A police controller has to be careful to fly on a clear day, without wind, and keep the drone within visual range. The controller is not allowed to aim the drone camera into a private residence or fly over crowds, and detailed images of people on the ground are illegal.

“We may have to wait a long time” for the day to arrive when conditions align in in Germany for legal drone use, a state-level official joked to Spiegel Online last year.

But police have been known to dodge these guidelines by flying drones over public protests where members of certain political movements are known to gather. Activists on the left and right assume the police want to collect mass photographic information of people in political movements, including portraits to run through facial-recognition software.

Gage, of course, tried to reassure journalists when he unveiled the Texas drone two weeks ago: “We’re not going to use it to be invading somebody’s privacy. It’ll be used for situations we have with criminals.”

But mission creep is common with drones.

The Pentagon said something similar two years ago about fighter-plane-sized Reaper drones deployed over the Indian Ocean: We’re only going to use these for spying on pirates, officials essentially said. Yes, they’re weaponizable, but they won’t be weaponized. By the end of this summer they were weaponized, and armed Reapers started to fire on Islamists in Somalia.

Around the same time, a Predator drone killed an American citizen, Anwar al-Awlaki, in Yemen. Even if all the people killed in those distant parts of the world were terrorists plotting hell for Americans, drone pilots do make mistakes.

In April, an Air Force drone surveying a nighttime skirmish between U.S. Marines and Taliban fighters in Afghanistan fired Hellfire missiles by accident at two Marines. Both died. The Los Angeles Times reports that when the remote pilot in Nevada realized what had happened, he asked to be relieved. He watched a playback of the drone video but couldn’t figure out how he’d misinterpreted the infrared images on his screen.

“He asked for the video to be stopped and left the building,” according to the Times. “An Air Force chaplain was waiting outside.”