Advancing Drone Tech Could One Day End Up With Police

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President Barack Obama sent military drones to Niger over the weekend to aid a reported counterterrorism mission, led by France, against Islamist rebels in Mali. Different news sources have conflicted in their reports over whether these drones are the kind that can kill you or just do aerial surveillance.

A December 2012 piece by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism looked back at the President’s first-term track record engaging enemies (and, on occasion, U.S. citizens overseas) with military drones. The authors concluded his drone policy has so far been… enthusiastic.

The American military drones now in use — so far as we know — have become a familiar sight. They’re small, stealthy, light. Most of them look like very cool model airplanes. But it’s only a matter of time before they’re completely outclassed.

While we’re talking enthusiasm, listen to this narrator’s zeal as he describes the tiny, deadly, pretty much undetectable new generation of MAVs — Micro Aerial Vehicles — under development by General Dynamics for the U.S. Department of Defense.

“Unobtrusive. Pervasive. Lethal.”

See where this is going?

National Geographic points out that current drones come with their share of problems, most of them related to safety issues that could mar their media image and hamper rapid development and deployment.

But those issues can, at most, only slow the inevitable. Tech improves; manufacturing processes tighten. Like any piece of emerging technology, drones will become smaller, quieter, more reliable, more conserving of energy, more consistent in performance. Their feature sets will expand with little to no downside.

That’s when the fun begins, because, at that point, research and development brains and military hawks will be able to sell their use to the public as “safe.”

What “safe” would mean in that context is “flawless in function.” What it would not mean is “absent the capacity to do harm.”

The civilian consumer tech most analogous, at present, to weaponized micro-drones comes in the form of those little, agile remote-control helicopters that seem to proliferate at Christmastime. Those things can be repurposed, up to a point, with the addition of cameras or incredibly tiny payloads, and it’s not hard to imagine an aspiring bad guy figuring out how to plot a relatively impressive amount of damage using so small a device.

But you can bet government agencies with access to drones will be playing with the expensive stuff, while the technology that trickles down to the public will be unmistakably consumer-grade.

Without question, modern nations long ago passed the point at which citizens had a legal means of acquiring weapon tech commensurate with that owned by their representative militaries. No one has an arsenal of nuclear weapons, Harriers or Virginia-class submarines.

All those weapons aim outward; they’re developed and deployed using citizen funds to guarantee American sovereignty against the aggression of other nations. Even if our leaders have debased that mission, improperly using weapons of war to give teeth to their foreign policies, those abuses have taken place on foreign soil.

But it’s changing.

Through Federal initiatives like the Department of Defense 1033 excess property program, local police departments have begun acquiring the means to set their might far above that of the legally armed civilian. They’re gaining, essentially for free, equipment designed for military use and accessible — until recently — only to American fighting forces.

If the militarization of our Nation’s local police forces continues, the day will soon come when departments that resemble small, technologically privileged armies, will be commonplace. They’ll be better equipped than the law allows any civilian to be.

The Pentagon temporarily suspended the 1033 program last June — not because the line between soldier and cop was getting too blurry, but because of this Arizona Republic story that revealed what can happen when some police departments get their hands on the good stuff.

Ben Bullard

Reconciling the concept of individual sovereignty with conscientious participation in the modern American political process is a continuing preoccupation for staff writer Ben Bullard. A former community newspaper writer, Bullard has closely observed the manner in which well-meaning small-town politicians and policy makers often accept, unthinkingly, their increasingly marginal role in shaping the quality of their own lives, as well as those of the people whom they serve. He argues that American public policy is plagued by inscrutable and corrupt motives on a national scale, a fundamental problem which individuals, families and communities must strive to solve. This, he argues, can be achieved only as Americans rediscover the principal role each citizen plays in enriching the welfare of our Republic.