As Drone Innovations Rise, Are Civil Liberties Hanging In the Balance?

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In Brief
  • Police Drones enforce social distancing, while new military drones could reinvent the way soldiers engage in urban warfare.

  • A study predicts that U.S. drone hobbyists will own upward of 3.5 million drones by the year 2021.

  • Advancements in drone technology has privacy advocates pushing back.

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Drone technology has had a long history, contrary to popular belief. The United States first began developing Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAV) as far back as 1916 during the First World War, becoming the progenitor of the first pilotless aircraft technology. Then, in 2002, the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) first started employing the use of an unmanned Predator drone in targeted killing missions of terrorist insurgents in Paktia province in Afghanistan.

Law enforcement drones and social distancing 

Drones have a broad application in today’s tech-driven world, bringing the power of flight to meet a consumer need which has created an unprecedented level of convenience, especially during the onslaught of COVID-19 and the need for social distancing that has invariably followed.

Consequently, delivery services have grown exponentially as aerial innovators and businesses have discovered new ways to meet customers’ needs while helping to limit the need to go out to supermarkets and face social contact.

Earlier this year, in an effort to enforce local social distancing policy, the Police Department for the city of Savannah Georgia launched “talking drones,” which play a pre-recorded message to people in crowds who are not practicing social distancing.

It is important to note that the drones were not deployed for random patrols, or as a new police unit, nor designed to replace foot patrols. They were used in areas where it was needed, which also provided a means to protect officers from potential contact with an infected person.

Several other police departments in the United States started utilizing remote drone dispatches for the same reason, while on the other side of the globe the Italian police deployed drones in an effort to track down violators of the nation-wide lockdown order.

The Elizabeth New Jersey Police Department said in April:

“We are trying to save lives, not be Big Brother. If this plan saves one life, then it’s worth it. All it’s doing is spreading an automated notice about social distance. No recording or pictures are taken, just a tool of encouragement to follow the rules.”

The deployment of drones to help law enforcement promote and enforce social distancing did not come without provocation or as a mechanism for encroachment. In an effort to limit contact between law enforcement and citizens, the technology stood in the gap and provided an alternative means for the police to communicate and interact with citizens posing a possible health risk to themselves and others. 

Drug cartel uses improvised drones with C4

In fact, after over hundred years of research and development, nowadays drones and their usage have evolved exponentially and have not only been used to shoot aerial footage for Hollywood blockbusters, for delivering meals and packages, for police operations, facial recognized for identifying criminals and missing persons, firing bullets in mid-air as a military weapon, but they are also being weaponized to deliver and detonate C4 explosive devices by a Mexican drug cartel.

The Jalisco Nueva Generacion Cartel (JNGC) is ostensibly one the most violent and dangerous of the Mexican drug cartels. They began using this offensive tactic in their pursuit to target rival cartels in South West Mexico, targeting their enemies in the town of Tepalcatepec, which is located in the State of Michoacan. 

C4 is an explosive material reserved for military use. However, the JNGC manufactured an improvised version of the explosive consisting of a payload of pellets, which is designed to tear through their rivals. The device is attached to the drone using metal tape, and then the weapon is detonated from a remote location.

The deployment of this new form of aerial bomb-based assault was accused as an act of terrorism by the Office of the Attorney General of the Republic, known as the Fiscalía General de la República, who started investigating the JNGC in May. During the course of the investigation, the Prosecutor’s Office found several weaponized drone components in addition to C4 explosives in Puebla, which is situated southeast of Mexico.

Part of the population of Tepalcatepec and even the self-defence groups have begun to move out and away from this hotbed of terror, as they fear that it is not possible to tackle this new form of attack.

A drone with fire-power

As drone technology climbs up the proverbial evolutionary ladder, there appears to be a focus on military drone technology designed to protect soldiers on the ground, and hopefully, create a new era of warfare that completely dissolves the need to deploy ground troops where the potential casualties of U.S. and allied forces is present. 

The TIKAD drone is among the most recent of drone innovations, developed by Duke Robotics. It features a machine-gun, a grenade launcher, and a variety of other weapons. Equipped with a lightweight robotic gimbal and an ability to lug and steady payload recoil that is up to three times its weight.

The small aerial drone is piloted by a human, who performs the flying, the targeting of enemy targets, and who pulls the trigger while in a safe location, ostensibly reducing the possibility of troop casualties. 

Accuracy is critical when the possibility of collateral damage taking place on the battlefield is a sobering reality on account of a stray displaced bullet striking the wrong target. 

“You have small groups [of adversaries] working within crowded civilian areas using civilians as shields. But you have to go in. Even to just get a couple of guys with a mortar, you have to send in a battalion and you lose guys. People get hurt. The operational challenge, it bothered us,” said Lieutenant Colonel Raziel Atuar, who is a 20-year veteran of the Israeli military and who serves as a reservist in the Israeli Special Forces.

U.S. army develops drone swarms

In November 2019, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) test launched a new kind of drone in Utah called the X-61A Gremlin. It can be deployed from a plane in the form of a swarm and then be retrieved in mid-flight after the completion of its mission.

This sounds like something out of a science fiction film. Imagine a military transport or bomber plane carrying these autonomous swarming devices in its fuselage consisting of around 250 small unmanned aircraft systems, dropping from a military aircraft and moving in concert around an urban area, autonomously moving, plotting and optimizing its own flight plan.

This new technology would be perfectly ideal for a variety of missions, and be able to navigate complex urban environments. According to DARPA, the swarm will have adaptive behavioral capabilities that transcend the traditional capabilities of remote controlled unmanned aircraft systems, allowing operators to design and implement customized swarm tactics.

The reason why DARPA endeavored to design the X-61A Gremlin was an effort to reduce military spending, since this new innovation could ostensibly give the drones a wider operational range than what they would be capable of if deployed from an air base. The U.S. military had labored on an earlier concept for many years, and had tested a similar autonomous aerial swarm system consisting of micro-UAVs back in 2017.

Concerns over human rights violations

Noel Sharkey, a professor of artificial intelligence (AI) and robotics and professor of public engagement at the University of Sheffield, expressed deep concerns over violations of human rights with the usage of large fixed-wing drones and how this new wave of drone technology could make it easier to kill innocent people caught in the crossfire.

Sharkey has been driving against “killer robots” for the past decade, specifically robots that are completely autonomous, computer-powered weapons designed with the capability to track and select targets without a human operator. Sharkey stated:

“Big military drones traditionally have to fly thousands of feet overhead to get to targets, but these smaller drones could easily fly down the street to apply violent force.”

One particular concern shared by Sharkey was the realistic possibility that military drone technology could be reverse engineered or copied by threat actors. If improvising weapons on drones starts to gravitate towards a more widely used attack form, either in urban warfare or in domestic terrorism, even modified drones sold by commercial retailers could potentially bring such fears into reality, as in the case with the JNGC drug cartel.

“We already know that Islamic State is using drones laden with explosives to kill people. What’s to stop them from getting their hands on this? Copying has not been possible with big military drones, but once you get the idea that you can strap automatic weapons onto one and operate it remotely, that’s very much easier,” Sharkey said. 

The question remains: drones or civil liberties?

As the popularity of drones continues to increase, so are the drones themselves. According to the Federal Aviation Administration, they predict that U.S. drone hobbyists will own upward of 3.5 million drones by the year 2021, with 1.6 million commercial drones in action.

As the number of drones in the skies increase, so do the concerns over privacy and safety. For example, there have already been a number of incidents where citizens have taken the liberty to shoot down drones flying over their property. Not everyone shares the same sentiment about this technology.

A perfect example of why people share negative views regarding drones could arguably stem from the sentiment that governments oftentimes exercise an overreach of power. Such as in the case of the Baltimore protests back in 2015 over the death of Freddie Gray, who was arrested for the possession of a switchblade, and died 45 minutes later while in police custody after he was found to be unconscious and not breathing. When people think of drones, the obvious sum that follows is “surveillance.”

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) obtained evidence through a Freedom Of Information Act request that revealed the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) were using drones to surveil citizens participating in the Baltimore protests following Freddie Gray’s death. 

That same year, the ACLU acquired records from the FBI which proved that the agency had flown at least 10 surveillance flight missions over the city of Baltimore, while the city streets were packed with citizens protesting and mourning Gray’s death. 

As the tech world continues to churn out new and innovative technologies designed to help make the world a better place, there will always remain a legitimate concern regarding encroachments against civil liberties, which ever remains as an unstable balancing act while both sides of the argument for drones or civil rights battle to convince each other which benefit is greater.

All the information contained on our website is published in good faith and for general information purposes only. Any action the reader takes upon the information found on our website is strictly at their own risk.
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Jesse McGraw is a writer, information security researcher, and a prison reform activist. He is also a former black hat hacker and founder of the hacktivist group known as the Electronik Tribulation Army. He is also known by the moniker "Ghost Exodus." He has holdings in stocks and in Bitcoin, but nothing worth writing home about.

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