Good news, everyone! The Department of Homeland Security, in its infinite wisdom, has decided that it would be kinda cool to have drones flying around to, you know, "protect the homeland." The Robotic Aircraft for Public Safety program will provide "Federal and local officials with state-of-the-art technology" to do all kinds of stuff in domestic airspace right above your head. What kinds of stuff? Sorry, that's all classified, but don't worry, citizens: rest assured that the DHS cares about you and would never do anything that you wouldn't want them to do. Or something.
Here's the deal: The Department of Homeland Security has put out a solicitation inviting small unmanned aerial systems vendors to participate in a live evaluation "using key performance parameters under a wide variety of simulated but realistic and relevant real-world operational scenarios, such as law enforcement operations, search and rescue, and fire and hazardous material spill response." The DHS isn't planning on buying anything or making any commitments at all, they just want to see what's out there. The objective criteria for the drones are as follows:
- Gimbaled EO/IR and chemical/biological/radiological sensors
- Range of six miles for fixed wing drones, three miles for rotary drones
- Top speed of 30 mph for fixed wing drones, 40 mph for rotary drones
- Hand launchable, recovery out of a deep stall or hover
- Pilotable with one day of training
- Integrated laser designator
The sketchy part about all of this is that we'll never get to hear about what's going on, since "the information within each test report will be classified as For Official Use Only, and will not be shared with the general public." I understand the need for security and stuff, but these drones are going to be operated domestically, and not by the military. And seriously, an integrated laser designator? On a domestic surveillance drone? For what, exactly?
Now, it may simply be that since these tests are "for informational and planning purposes only," it wouldn't be fair to the companies involved to publicize the early, shall we say, non-successes that typically come along with programs of this nature. However, it also sets a rather shady precedent, and if some incarnation of the drones that participate in this program are going to end up flying around over our homes, we should be entitled to know things about them. Like, if early testing shows that the drones have a tendency towards mistaking endangered California Condors for alien stealth bombers or something, that's some important info right there and we deserve to know about it. And apart from specific information on the different drones that DHS is considering in the interest of public safety, I also feel like we, as the public, should be told more about both what the drones are intended to do, and what they're capable of doing, which often is not the same thing.
Whether or not using unmanned systems for domestic surveillance or not is debatable, but the point here is that there should be a debate. If the Department of Homeland Security wants to make this happen without seeming all sinister and creepy about it, they need to keep things open and honest and let the public know, and decide, what level of surveillance we're willing to accept for our own safety.
Evan Ackerman is the senior writer for IEEE Spectrum's award-winning robotics blog, Automaton. Since 2007, he has written over 6,000 articles on robotics and emerging technology, covering conferences and events on every single continent except Antarctica (although he remains optimistic). In addition to Spectrum, Evan's work has appeared in a variety of other online publications including Gizmodo and Slate, and you may have heard him on NPR's Science Friday or the BBC World Service if you were listening at just the right time. Evan has an undergraduate degree in Martian geology, which he almost never gets to use, and still wants to be an astronaut when he grows up. In his spare time, he enjoys scuba diving, rehabilitating injured raptors, and playing bagpipes excellently.