Police departments around the country are warming up to unmanned spy planes. But don’t expect the Department of Homeland Security to catch drone fever any time soon. It’s too controversial for an agency already getting hammered for naked scanners and junk-touching. Sure, DHS flies some Predators along the Mexican border. But a broader deployment, above the majority of American skies, to stop terror attacks? Not likely.
“I don’t know how much [drones] will be used within the U.S.,” says Ruth Doherty, a top official with the Department of Homeland Security’s Science and Technology Directorate tasked with countering the domestic threat of homemade bombs. Asked about domestic drone use for bomb-spotting by Danger Room, she replies, “A case has to be made that they’re economically feasible, not intrusive and acceptable to the public.”
At a sprawling conference just outside of D.C. this morning, Doherty said that the spread of homemade bombs from Iraq or Afghanistan to cities inside the U.S. is all too real. Problem is, it’s much easier to spot bombs in checkpoint areas like airports, where security officials can line people up to swab luggage for trace explosive material or run passengers through metal detectors, than at mass gatherings like the Super Bowl.
Surveillance cameras can snap pictures of possible “anomalous” behavior. But for explosives, big gatherings or subways aren’t yet sensor-fests. And that’s in part because of what a “free and open” society will accept, Doherty said: just think of the “widespread controversy” of last year’s airport introduction of whole-body imagers and junk-touching pat-downs, a theme she kept returning to as an example of public backlash to security measures.
“We need technologies [that are]… acceptable to the public,” Doherty said, and it’s still a challenge — she preferred to call it an “opportunity” — for the DHS. Surveillance cameras at stadiums or in subway stations are controversial enough, she said; it’s more likely that drones will continue to be used by the military than “used widely in the U.S.” If people don’t like their junk touched at airports, they might be afraid of robot airplanes using sensors that can sniff their clothes or cars for bomb materials.
That’s ironic. Even if the Department of Homeland Security is skittish about drones, local police departments are fascinated by them. Cops in Miami-Dade recently bought two “flying beer keg” drones from Honeywell to help them grab surveillance information, and other law-enforcement operations aren’t far behind, pending approval from the Federal Aviation Administration. And, of course, Homeland Security already operates drones along the borders to curb illegal immigration — even if they don’t have such a perfect flight record.
But after becoming the subject of holiday-time anger and ridicule at the airports, Homeland Security isn’t so keen on having more “community aggravating feature[s]” in place when it comes to stopping homemade bombs. It’s set up “Community Perceptions of Technology” panels, Doherty said, inviting civil-rights, civil-liberties and privacy groups to figure out whether new detection technology will earn public acceptance. Bomb-sniffing robot planes might be a hard sell.
Photo: U.S. Air Force
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