What's a drone to do?

It’s like something out of science fiction – police drones patrolling Australia’s skies, able to track and transmit live video surveillance of any individual from 3km above, for up to 20 hours at a time.

In the US, it’s already reality. The first ever police arrest using a drone – a Predator B – took place on June 24th, 2011 in North Dakota. The drone was used to locate three potentially armed suspects. From a distance of more than 3km overhead, the drone was able to detect the perpetrators and show that they were not armed, allowing police officers to ambush and arrest them.

The drone belonged to U.S. Customs and Border Protection, which has owned and operated the machines since 2005. They are used to search for people attempting to cross the border. They have also been used, without any public acknowledgement, in local, state and federal law enforcement and as part of FBI surveillance operations.

It is not illegal for law enforcement to conduct aerial surveillance without a warrant in the US. But former US Member of Congress Jane Harman told the LA Times that “There is no question that this could become something that people will regret.” According to Ms. Harman, the possibility of using spy drones for local police work was never discussed.

Ms. Harman is no conspiracy theorist or paranoid privacy advocate. She was a member of the House Homeland Security Subcommittee, and its chairwoman from 2007-2011. She was a strong defender of President Bush’s illegal wire-tapping program. If people like Ms. Harman are getting worried, perhaps there really is something to be concerned about.

There are obvious advantages to the domestic use of drones. The technology could be invaluable in a search and rescue capacity, in high speed car chases and in evaluating whether a situation is safe for police officers to enter.

However, there are also very significant privacy concerns surrounding unmanned aerial surveillance (UAS), which can provide continuous surveillance of an area, vehicle or individual for up to and beyond 20 hours without refuelling. New technology currently being trialled may extend that to several days, or even allow drones to refuel in mid-air with the use of another drone. In addition to privacy, there are other reasons to be concerned about the use of drones.

Drones can be hacked. In 2009 the Wall Street Journal reported that militants in Iraq had used $26 Windows software to intercept live video feeds from Predator drones. US General David Deptula acknowledged the risks to using drones, saying that the long distances involved meant that, “those kinds of things are subject to listening and exploitation.” Police jurisdictions lack the cutting-edge technology and seemingly boundless resources of the US military; their systems, therefore, are that much more vulnerable to interference.

A third reason for concern is that forces in the US are already pushing for police drones to be armed with non-lethal weapons such as tear gas, capsicum spray and guns loaded with rubber bullets.

The Victoria Police Air Wing recently hosted an international conference on the potential use of drones. The Air Wing currently provides helicopter support, but has confirmed that it is considering the possible applications of drone technology. “Victoria Police will continue to assess the quickly maturing UAS technology market for potential operational use in the future,” a statement read. There has been no further information released, either on how the drones would be used or on how far plans have progressed.

Victoria is not the only state which may soon be equipped with domestic surveillance drones. The Queensland police have already tested a small drone for search and rescue operations. Speaking to ABC’s The Beast in July last year, ACT Police Chief Roman Quaedvlieg indicated that they were ‘actively exploring’ the possibilities of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV) and had been consulting with overseas police jurisdictions. He indicated that UAV could realistically be deployed over the ACT for police purposes within the next 5-10 years.

The major barrier to police forces is gaining the approval of the Australian Civil Aviation Safety Authority (CASA). CASA currently allows unmanned aircraft to fly up to 122m (400 ft) over unpopulated areas only. Special approval is needed to fly higher, over other areas or in controlled or restricted air space. CASA has been increasingly under pressure to lift or at least significantly loosen these restrictions within the next few years. The organisation has appointed its first specialist UAV expert, and is currently reviewing its regulations.