The Draganflyer X6 is a tiny helicopter with big implications. A six-rotor drone quietly acquired by the Seattle Police Department in 2010 with grant money from the Department of Homeland Security, it weighs a little more than two pounds, can travel at a top speed of 30 miles per hour, and is designed to carry high-quality video equipment, including an infrared camera.
Last week, the SPD brought one of its two Draganflyers—which cost a total of $82,553 plus $2,700 in training costs and are currently authorized by the Federal Aviation Administration for training, but not for operational use—to a community forum, planning to answer questions. The meeting erupted into loud protest. "We don't trust you with the weapons you do have!" one attendee shouted. Another asked if drones were a foregone conclusion or "do we get to choose?" A third shouted: "What's the return policy for the drones?"
In a quiet corner of the room, Lieutenant Greg Sackman—the lead officer of SPD's drone project—said he didn't mind the ruckus. Seattle is at the forefront of a national debate, he explained, and the technology is developing faster than the laws to govern it. It wasn't until this year that the US Supreme Court ruled on whether law enforcement could use GPS to track suspects without a warrant. (The court said no.) "A lot of other cities are behind us and waiting to see what happens," Sackman said. "We have to earn people's trust." Still, he added, drones will spread to police departments across the country: "It's just a matter of time."
The SPD says it wants to use drones for noncontroversial missions: bomb threats, search and rescue, crime-scene photography. But skeptics, including city council members (who only found out about SPD's drones after a federal public-records lawsuit by a watchdog group) and the American Civil Liberties Union, are wary of mission creep. They say that drones, even if introduced for narrow and highly regulated use, could be too tempting to not deploy for surveillance, violating Fourth Amendment protections against unreasonable search and seizure. "Imagine year five of the Romney administration," says ACLU spokesperson Doug Honig, who argues that drones should be governed by strict ordinances at the local, state, and federal level, "and not internal policies that can be changed by future administrations."
These are reasonable and serious concerns. Other police departments are already talking about using drones for mass surveillance—and even arming them. A police chief in Utah asked the Federal Aviation Administration for permission to fly a "nocturnal surveillance airship" over Ogden. (The FAA declined the request due to air-traffic concerns.) Sheriff Gregory Ahern of Alameda County, California, has angered residents with comments about using drones for "proactive policing." Earlier this year, a chief deputy in Montgomery County, Texas, said he was open to the idea of arming a drone with "impact rounds, chemical munition rounds, or a Taser." (During a test flight of the county's prospective drone that same month, it crashed into a heavily armed police vehicle.)
While SPD's proposals have been more modest, its internal policies already leave room for broad discretionary power. The current operations manual for SPD drones lists very specific uses—hazmat, barricaded persons—but says "all other requested uses will be approved by the Special Operations Bureau Chief."
"This is actually a pretty restrictive list from our perspective," Lt. Sackman says. "Police officers are given a great amount of discretion in the performance of their duties, up to and including the use of deadly force, if required, without seeking permission." Still, he says, "As with any new technology, there is the potential for misuse. SPD is trying to clearly define when and where we can use the UAS [drones] to lessen this possibility as well as provide clear guidance to the operators on what they can and can't do."
In the meantime, Seattle City Council member Bruce Harrell—chair of the council's committee on public safety, civil rights, and technology—says he will add a proviso to this year's budget prohibiting the purchase of further drones with city money until SPD comes to the council with an acceptable usage policy. (SPD bought its drones with federal money.) The drone return policy, he says, is simply "buyer beware." Harrell hopes that SPD policy will require warrants, restrict use to daylight hours, stipulate how long the department can keep any information it has gathered, mandate a public log of usage, and keep drones away from crowds. Harrell also plans to convene his committee in December, once the city budget has passed, to introduce drone regulations.
"Mission creep is a 100 percent valid concern," he says. "I have gotten hardly zero support for this from all walks of life—from the guy hanging out on the corner to the woman in the power suit. I get stopped all the time and asked about these drones."