The use of drones by domestic US law enforcement agencies is growing rapidly, both in terms of numbers and types of usage. As a result, civil liberties and privacy groups led by the ACLU – while accepting that domestic drones are inevitable – have been devoting increasing efforts to publicizing their unique dangers and agitating for statutory limits. These efforts are being impeded by those who mock the idea that domestic drones pose unique dangers (often the same people who mock concern over their usage on foreign soil). This dismissive posture is grounded not only in soft authoritarianism (a religious-type faith in the Goodness of US political leaders and state power generally) but also ignorance over current drone capabilities, the ways drones are now being developed and marketed for domestic use, and the activities of the increasingly powerful domestic drone lobby. So it’s quite worthwhile to lay out the key under-discussed facts shaping this issue.
I’m going to focus here most on domestic surveillance drones, but I want to say a few words about weaponized drones. The belief that weaponized drones won’t be used on US soil is patently irrational. Of course they will be. It’s not just likely but inevitable. Police departments are already speaking openly about how their drones “could be equipped to carry nonlethal weapons such as Tasers or a bean-bag gun.” The drone industry has already developed and is now aggressively marketing precisely such weaponized drones for domestic law enforcement use. It likely won’t be in the form that has received the most media attention: the type of large Predator or Reaper drones that shoot Hellfire missiles which destroy homes and cars in Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia, Afghanistan and multiple other countries aimed at Muslims (although US law enforcement agencies already possess Predator drones and have used them over US soil for surveillance).
Instead, as I detailed in a 2012 examination of the drone industry’s own promotional materials and reports to their shareholders, domestic weaponized drones will be much smaller and cheaper, as well as more agile – but just as lethal. The nation’s leading manufacturer of small “unmanned aircraft systems” (UAS), used both for surveillance and attack purposes, is AeroVironment, Inc. (AV).