Military Makes Extensive Domestic Use of Drones, FAA Documents Reveal


You can find out the most fascinating things from government documents, especially from those that officials didn't really want to release. In particular, Federal Aviation Administration records pried from federal clutches by that legalistic jaws-of-life known as a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit reveal that the military is sending previously unknown flocks of drones into the American skies. While the main purpose of domestic flights appears to be testing and training, these drones do have sophisticated surveillance capabilities that could be deployed right here at home — and have been, if only for the purposes of operator practice and amusement.

This informational bonanza comes courtesy of requirements that the military get FAA permission to fly drones outside of restricted airspace, in the skies over almost the entire country. That the records exist means, therefore, that the military does exactly that. The data dump revealed flights by the Air Force, the Marine Corps and the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency. Says EFF:

The records show that the Air Force has been testing out a bunch of different drone types, from the smaller, hand-launched Raven, Puma and Wasp drones designed by Aerovironment in Southern California, to the much larger Predator and Reaper drones responsible for civilian and foreign military deaths abroad. The Marine Corps is also testing drones, though it chose to redact so much of the text from its records that we still don't know much about its programs.

Presumably, these aren't armed drones flying over our heads, but they do have impressive surveillance capabilities.

Perhaps the scariest is the technology carried by a Reaper drone the Air Force is flying near Lincoln, Nevada and in areas of California and Utah. This drone uses "Gorgon Stare" technology, which Wikipedia defines 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" being developed by DARPA. If true, this technology takes surveillance to a whole new level.

EFF references a New York Times report from last summer that drone operators hone their skills by tracking random civilians who come within range. From a throw-away passage in the "paper of record's" piece:

It took a few seconds to figure out exactly what we were looking at. A white S.U.V. traveling along a highway adjacent to the base came into the cross hairs in the center of the screen and was tracked as it headed south along the desert road. When the S.U.V. drove out of the picture, the drone began following another car.

"Wait, you guys practice tracking enemies by using civilian cars?" a reporter asked. One Air Force officer responded that this was only a training mission, and then the group was quickly hustled out of the room.

Great. So, now we get intrusive scrutiny as an almost accidental byproduct.