There won't be drones buzzing high over the Super Bowl in New Orleans this February, after all. But city officials say they could use drones at other high profile events, including Mardis Gras.
Multiple city officials, including Deputy Mayor of Public Safety Jerry Sneed, told The Lens, a New Orleans investigative journalism website, that the city had acquired a Department of Homeland Security drone to monitor crowds at the Super Bowl. But the city and DHS have apparently decided to reverse course and will use a manned helicopter instead.
In an E-mail, Sneed said that the city "had originally understood that the aerial video feed was going to be provided from drone capabilities," but instead that feed will "be provided via a manned aircraft rather than an unmanned one."
New Orleans becomes the latest city which has been rumored to be looking into using drones for special events, only to relent—Tampa reportedly considered using unmanned aerial vehicles for the Republican National Convention but ultimately didn't.
While drones have been used successfully in the war on terror, especially overseas, their use domestically has so far been limited.
"It hasn't happened yet, but it seems like police are keen on using them at these major events," says Trevor Timm, an activist at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, an organization fighting for transparency in drone use. "A lot of the times when sunlight is shined on these ideas, the cities back away."
Although New Orleans won't use drones for the Super Bowl, Sneed didn't rule out using them for some of the city's bigger events, such as Mardis Gras, Jazz Festival, and New Year's Eve celebrations.
The city "feels [drones] could be a very worthwhile tool to increase security for the numerous outside events the city hosts annually," he wrote. "If funding becomes available for the purchase of UAV's, we would definitely look closely at this additional security tool."
Timm says it's obvious to see why law enforcement wants to use drones at high-profile events. They are often smaller, cheaper, and less conspicuous than helicopters and can be outfitted with high-definition cameras and heat tracking technologies. But once they are used at an event, they can very easily be used for surveillance, he warns.
"I think it would open a Pandora's Box where we're now using them for regular surveillance activities where there's no proof anyone's engaged in any wrongdoing," he says. "If they're using them at political events, they can spy on protesters who are trying to exercise their right to free speech."
The EFF says that governments, both local and federal, needs to pass laws that require police departments to obtain a warrant before a drone is used and need to make sure information not pertinent to a specific case is deleted after it's captured.
"I think the public pushback is really important because it can lay the groundwork for clear rules of the road and privacy protection," he says. "I think the American people have a legitimate concern that one day soon they may not be able to step outside without potentially having cameras on them."
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.