The Customs and Border Patrol uses drones along the U.S.-Mexico border. And the FAA has granted several hundred permits to universities, police departments and other government agencies to use small, low-flying drones. For example, the sheriff's department in Montgomery County, Texas, has a 50-pound ShadowHawk helicopter drone intended to supplement its SWAT team.
The sheriff's department hasn't armed its drone, although the ShadowHawk can be equipped with a 40 mm grenade launcher and a 12-guage shotgun. The prospect of armed drones patrolling U.S. skies has alarmed some lawmakers and their constituents. More than a dozen bills have been introduced in Congress and state legislatures to curb drone use and protect privacy.
President Barack Obama was asked Thursday about concerns that the administration believes it's legal to strike American citizens abroad with drones and whether that's allowed against citizens in the U.S. If not, how would he create a legal framework to help citizens know drone strikes can't be used against them?
"There's never been a drone used on an American citizen on American soil," the president said, speaking during an online chat sponsored by Google in which he was promoting his policy initiatives.
"We respect and have a whole bunch of safeguards in terms of how we conduct counterterrorism operations outside of the United States. The rules outside of the United States are going to be different than the rules inside the United States, in part because our capacity, for example, to capture terrorists in the United States are very different than in the foothills or mountains of Afghanistan or Pakistan."
He said he would work with Congress to make sure the American public understands "what the constraints are, what the legal parameters are, and that's something that I take very seriously."
Earlier this week, an FAA official told a meeting of potential test site bidders that aviation regulations prohibit dropping anything from aircraft, which could be interpreted to bar arming civilian drones, according to an industry official present at the meeting who requested anonymity because he wasn't authorized to speak publicly.
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