PUBLISHED: 19:43 EST, 8 June 2012 | UPDATED: 00:45 EST, 9 June 2012
A 30-page memorandum issued by President Barack Obama’s Secretary of the Air Force Michael Donley on April 23 has stated that the drones, some as small as golf balls, may be used domestically to ‘collect information about U.S. persons.’
The photos that the drones will take may be retained, used or even distributed to other branches of the government so long as the ‘recipient is reasonably perceived to have a specific, lawful governmental function’ in asking for them.
Tiny spy: It has been reported that the U.S. government may deploy miniature unmanned drones the size of a golf ball to collect intelligence on U.S. citizens
The purpose of the cited memorandum is stated as ‘balancing … obtaining intelligence information…and protecting individual rights guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution.’
Andrew Napolitano, former New Jersey judge and senior judicial analyst at Fox News, wrote in his Washington Times opinion column this week that if the military personnel spot something of interest from a drone, they may apply to a military judge or ‘military commander’ for permission to conduct a physical search of the private property.
The memo cited by Napolitano goes on to say that any ‘incidentally acquired information’ can be retained or turned over to local law enforcement, which raises the question of the constitutionality of launching a drone program stateside, and whether it violates people’s right to privacy.
Besides their lethal military application, however, drones can be used in a wide array of scenarios, from tracking down runaway criminals to spraying crops with pesticides.
‘It’s going to happen,’ Dan Elwell, vice president of civil aviation at the Aerospace Industries Association, told the Seattle Times. ‘Now it’s about figuring out how to safely assimilate the technology into national airspace.’
It remains up to the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to do just that. In January, the agency plans to propose a new set of rules for using small drones domestically.
The FAA has issued 266 active testing permits for civilian-drone applications, but has yet to allow drones to enter U.S. airspace on a wide scale out of concern they do not have an adequate technology to prevent mid-air collisions.
Concerns for privacy, which have been raised by Napolitano and other critics, remain prominent in the debate over the domestic use of small drones.
The aerospace industry, however, insists that these concerns can be addressed.
Police departments in Texas, Florida and Minnesota have already expressed interest in the technology’s potential to detect fugitives on rooftops or to track them at night by using the robotic aircraft’s heat-seeking cameras.
California-based drone maker AeroVironment, which has been supplying the military with small drones, has developed its first miniature helicopter drone designed specifically for law enforcement.
Once FAA restrictions are eased, the company plans to offer the technology to the nation’s estimated 18,000 state and local police agencies.
AeroVironment engineers have been secretly testing a miniature helicopter named Qube, which features four whirling rotors that can lift it as high as 200 feet above ground and a sophisticated video camera.
The new drone weighs a little over 5lbs, fits in a car trunk and is controlled remotely by a tablet computer.
Compared to a normal sized helicopter currently used by law enforcement agencies that can cost as much as $1.7million, the Qube drone comes with a modest $40,000 price tag.
Besides being a useful tool for killing terrorists and tracking down perpetrators, drones also have more peaceful applications. Farmers in Japan already use small unmanned craft to spray crops with pesticides.
Officials in Tampa, Florida, want to use drones for security surveillance at next year’s Republican National Convention.
Matternet, a Silicon Valley-based start-up company, has proposed a network of drones to deliver food and medicine worldwide in isolated regions without roads.
But if drones are to become ubiquitous in the future, a serious concern remains that they could fall into the wrong hands and be weaponized.
And there is also the privacy issue, which becomes even more critical when one considers the potential use of drones by the federal government, which has recently been especially trigger-happy in Pakistan and Afghanistan.
‘If we remain silent when our popularly elected government violates the laws it has sworn to uphold and steals the freedoms we elected it to protect, we will have only ourselves to blame when Big Brother is everywhere,’ Napolitano concludes in his column.