Exciting times in Drone Nation.

reaperdroneGeneral Atomics MQ-9 Reaper drone.
(image: public domain).

For many years, our friends at Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) have been serving Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests on multiple public agencies concerning domestic drone use, and then filing lawsuits against them when the information has not been forthcoming. Even though many agencies still have not released all of the information to which the public is entitled, EFF has alerted us again and again to some remarkable discoveries about which most Americans, including the president, apparently either do not know or do not care. Or, perhaps, both.

I mentioned previously EFF’s interactive map of known military drone flights in the U.S. The U.S. military needs no authorization to fly drones over its own bases: such airspace is restricted and all other air traffic must avoid it. But at least for now, FAA must authorize drone flights operated anywhere else in our national air space, and FAA records are the source of the map data.

effdronemapEFF’s map indicating FAA-authorized military drone operations over U.S. soil.
(excludes military bases.)

The FOIA request also revealed a risk assessment document in connection with failures and crashes of Predator and Reaper drones operated in a corridor of public airspace between two military bases:

riskassessmentpredatorreaperdronesRisk Assessment table listing fifteen hazards, the probability of each occurring (from seldom to likely), severity of potential damage (“catastrophic,” “critical” or “moderate”), and the corresponding risk level for each (low, medium or high).

The assessment of risk appears to concern only risk to the drone itself, and not, say, risk to “other traffic” such as an airliner, or to oblivious civilians on the ground. We can readily deduce that this is so from the document’s assessment of hazard 4, “Failure of command link.” Although it has the highest probability of happening of any hazard on the list (“Likely”), the severity is assessed only at “Moderate,” and the risk level only at “Medium.” Assuming this assessment is correct, it is because nothing catastrophic is likely to happen to a drone when humans temporarily lose control of it: the drone is merely being assessed and re-programmed by the U.S. strategic defense computer Skynet*, which as everyone knows became self-aware on August 29, 1997. Until the upcoming war between humans and the machines officially begins — i.e., when the machines launch their first strike nuclear attack on Russia — any domestic drone reprogrammed by Skynet is probably only at moderate risk of harm from humans.

At least Skynet, we can be sure, knows exactly what it is doing. This is clearly not the case with human drone operators. Around the same the FAA documents were made public, the Washington Post published a report on a rash of U.S. military drone crashes at civilian airports overseas. Based on thousands of pages of unclassified Air Force investigation reports, the article reveals stories like this one:

An inexperienced military contractor in shorts and a T-shirt, flying by remote control from a trailer at Seychelles International Airport, committed blunder after blunder in six minutes on April 4.

He sent the unarmed MQ-9 Reaper drone off without permission from the control tower. A minute later, he yanked the wrong lever at his console, killing the engine without realizing why.

As he tried to make an emergency landing, he forgot to put down the wheels. The $8.9 million aircraft belly-flopped on the runway, bounced and plunged into the tropical waters at the airport’s edge…The drone crashed at a civilian airport that serves a half-million passengers a year, most of them sun-seeking tourists.

It was the second Reaper crash in five months “under eerily similar circumstances.” Among the problems repeatedly cited in the Air Force’s drone crash investigation reports are “pilot error, mechanical failure, software bugs in the ‘brains’ of the aircraft and poor coordination with civilian air-traffic controllers.” I’m going to go out on a limb here and predict that domestic drones will be plagued with similar problems, including man-child yahoos with badges just itching to play with their $8 million toys without daddy’s permission. Hell, they will probably include the exact same d00d that crashed that Reaper. He now has valuable “experience.”

Fortunately, FAA has denied some domestic drone permit requests that are so obviously dangerous it is difficult to believe that anyone but a man-child yahoo with a badge would ever even submit them. It denied Minnesota county police a drone permit because no one in the county met even the minimum FAA requirements for drone pilots or observers, presenting an “unacceptable risk.” Then there was Georgia Tech’s Police Department — university police departments now have their own drones (of course they do!)— which wanted to fly its Hornet Micro drone in the middle of a major helicopter route. The FAA denied that permit, too, but only because the drone was not equipped with an “approved sense-and avoid system.” Any one want to bet against top drone manufacturers Lockheed Martin, Boeing, Northrop Grumman, General Atomics and General Dynamics successfully lobbying the Congressional Drone Caucus (yes, that’s a Thing) to take domestic drone jurisdiction out of the FAA’s control entirely, and give it to Lockheed? And while they’re at it, maybe Congress can scale back all of these terrible, burdensome profit- job-killing regulations, like requiring pilots to meet pesky FAA “requirements,” or keeping drones out of major helicopter routes?

What, no takers? I am shocked, people.

Last year, the Office of Inspector General at the Department of Homeland Security issued a scathing report (pdf) detailing serious problems with the Customs and Border Patrol (CBP) drone program, including a lack of qualified staff and appropriate equipment necessary to fly drones safely, failure to account for costs and expenditures, and a complete lack of procedures to prioritize other agencies’ requests for drone flights, among other deficiencies. (It sounds like they’re running it exactly like the Iraq war clusterfuck. Probably the same d00ds, too.) When the OIG report was released, EFF noted at the time that the lack of procedures was especially alarming since CBP has been flying its drones for almost a decade. As a result of another FOIA lawsuit, EFF has just obtained documents from CBP in which there are even more exciting drone developments to report!

  • CBP is presently flying its ten Predator drones for a slew of other law enforcement agencies, for reasons which have absolutely nothing to do with border patrol. Although the CBP documents were heavily redacted (particularly with respect to outside agency names), EFF was able to determine that they include the FBI, ICE, US Marshals, Coast Guard, the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Investigation, the North Dakota Bureau of Criminal Investigation, the North Dakota Army National Guard, and the Texas Department of Public Safety. Missions for these agencies “ranged from specific drug-related investigations, searches for missing persons, border crossings and fishing violations to general ‘surveillance imagery’ and ‘aerial reconnaissance’ of a given location.”

Fishing violations?

  • The CBP flight logs indicate an enormous increase in drone missions for other agencies over the past three years. In 2010, there were about 30; in 2011, more than 160; in 2012, 250.

I’m sure 2013 is shaping up to be a banner year for fishing violations.

  • The documents also reveal that in addition to CBP’s plans to make its drones more widely available to other agencies, it also plans to increase access to the data gathered on its surveillance flights — for example, by streaming data in near real-time to the Department of Defense’s Global Information Grid (GIG). CBP also envisions that its joint operations with DHS and other government agencies will “become the norm at successively lower organizational hierarchical levels.” EFF notes that this will almost certainly “reduce the already limited oversight for CBP’s drone-loan program.”
  • By 2016, CBP plans to obtain an additional 14 Predator drones. This will increase its fleet to 24 and its drone surveillance capability to 24/7/365.

With all the Iraq-style accounting going on, it is difficult to estimate the precise costs of expanding CPB’s fleet and operating it continuously. But for a back-of-the-napkin estimate, the aforementioned OIG report notes that CBP’s ten Predator drones cost about $18 million to buy — each. And about $3,000 per hour to fly — each.


General Atomics MQ-1 Predator.
(image: public domain)

Drones already have remarkable surveillance capabilities — and they are constantly improving. The Air Force has flown Insitu’s ScanEagle near Virginia Beach; the ScanEagle carries an “inertial-stabilized camera turret, [that] allows for the tracking of a target of interest for extended periods of time, even when the target is moving.” The Air Force has also flown Boeing’s A160 Hummingbird near Victorville, California; the Hummingbird sports a gigapixel camera, “Forester foliage-penetration radar” designed by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), and can stay airborne for 16-24 hours at a time. But the Reaper drone the Air Force is flying around Lincoln, Nevada and areas of California and Utah is in a class of its own. The General Atomics MQ-9 Reaper deploys so-called “Gorgon Stare” technology, defined by Wikipedia as “a spherical array of nine cameras attached to an aerial drone…capable of capturing motion imagery of an entire city.” This imagery “can then be analyzed by humans or an artificial intelligence, such as the Mind’s Eye project” currently being developed by Cyberdyne Systems DARPA. The Predator drones CBP is now flying have “high resolution Synthetic Aperture Radar (SAR), color video, and electron optical (EO) and infrared (IR) cameras.” Weaponized Reapers and Predators have been deployed in Afghanistan, Iraq, and the president’s multiple illegal wars in places like Pakistan and Yemen: they are capable of performing Reconnaissance, Surveillance, Targeting and Acquisition (“RSTA”) to track multiple moving targets of interest in any weather, and then blasting them to pieces with Hellfire missiles.

Which brings us to perhaps the least surprising revelation in the latest document trove: CBP is considering equipping its Predator drones with “non-lethal weapons designed to immobilize” targets of interest. EFF notes that this is the first time it has heard of any federal agency proposing the use of weaponized drones over U.S. soil. Another prediction: it will not be the last. (You fishing violators out there better watch out! Your ass is gonna be tazed by sky robots!)

Meanwhile, Spencer Ackerman reports in The Guardian on a study referenced in an official U.S. military journal, conducted by a U.S. military adviser at the Center for Naval Analyses. U.S. officials have long contended that drone strikes significantly limit civilian casualties, noting that drone targeting capabilities are much more precise than targeting from manned aircraft. The new study analyzed classified military data on strikes and civilian casualties in Afghanistan from mid-2010 to mid-2011, and revealed that drone strikes actually caused more civilian casualties than strikes initiated by manned fighter jets. Ten times more. Yep. According to the unclassified executive summary of the study, drone strikes are “an order of magnitude more likely to result in civilian casualties per engagement.”

Somebody had better inform the Nobel Peace Prize Winner and Constitutional Scholar in Chief about this right away! Why, as recently as May 23, our poor, clueless president was under the misimpression that “conventional airpower or missiles are far less precise than drones, and likely to cause more civilian casualties and local outrage.” He also insisted that by deploying drones to assassinate people with no due process, he is “choosing the course of action least likely to result in the loss of innocent life.” Since we all know our highest officials would never, ever lie to us, we can only surmise that there is at least one nefarious mole high up in the administration, feeding the president false information.

They’re probably working for Lockheed.

*This post contains several references to the 1984 film The Terminator, starring Arnold Schwarzenegger, Linda Hamilton and Michael Biehn. I do sincerely apologize for this, but really, it just couldn’t be helped.

5 thoughts on “Exciting times in Drone Nation.

  1. “Non-lethal weapons”, love the term! Seems somewhat of a contradiction, but I guess not. When I read parts of this story the other day, I looked up the definition, the most informative was from the US Department of Defense! They even have a website devoted to this, and wow! are they proud! Videos of Marines developing new ones, or finding new uses for existing NLW. It could be funny – if it wasn’t real.


  2. Pingback: Exciting times in Drone Nation. | Citizen Journalists Exchange

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