Law enforcement agencies that have requested permission from the Federal Aviation Administration to fly unmanned drones plan to use them for surveillance purposes, according to documents obtained by an Internet freedom organization.
"With some exceptions, drone flights in the U.S. have been all about developing and testing surveillance technology," Jennifer Lynch, staff attorney of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, which obtained thousands of official documents via a Freedom of Information Act request, wrote in a blog post.
The FAA has issued special permits to companies such as Raytheon, General Atomics, Telford Aviation, and Honeywell to test new drones. But law enforcement agencies in at least five states requested permission to fly drones over the past several years.
The Little Rock, Ark. police department, for instance, has a drone called the Rotomotion SR30, a "small fuel-powered helicopter" that "can carry day-zoom cameras, infrared cameras, or both simultaneously."
"The system is designed to track objects," and can fly autonomously, according to the document. The police department received permission from the FAA to fly the drone at altitudes of up to 400 feet, and the department was authorized to fly the drone between 2009 and 2012.
Drones in Seattle and Miami are equipped with video cameras capable of taking daytime and nighttime video, as are drones used by the Texas Department of Public Safety.
Seattle-based activist Glen Milner obtained the drone-use policies for his city's police department. According to the document, drones are used to "gain an aerial perspective consistent with the open view doctrine," which allows officers to monitor areas that are in "plain view."
Drones in Seattle are also used during criminal investigations, to find missing people, monitor hostage situations, during "hot pursuit" of suspects, during natural disasters, and for "specific situations with the direct authorization of the Assistant Chief of the Homeland Security Bureau."
The FAA denied a request from the Ogden, Utah police department that would have used a "nocturnal surveillance airship" because the unmanned blimp would have presented an "unacceptable high risk to the National Airspace System."
Ogden police chief Jon Greiner was perhaps the most straightforward with his request to use the blimp as a surveillance tool. According to his April, 2011 request, the autonomous ship would have flown a set route for five hours each night.
"During the flight the camera system would be monitored for suspicious activity and the Pilot in Command would send an officer to investigate," he wrote. The ship would have been used "for law enforcement surveillance of high crime areas of Ogden City."
The EFF has made all of the documents it has obtained available on its website.
Jason Koebler is a science and technology reporter for U.S. News & World Report. You can follow him on Twitter or reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.