Monday, 26 December 2011

$150 million Predator Drone helps arrest $6,000 cow theives

When the Brossart family prepared for the Sheriff to storm their property, due to charges of refusing to return stray livestock, they scanned the surrounding trees and fields.

They should have been looking up.

As an armed standoff escalated, Sheriff Janke borrowed a U.S. Customs and Border Protection Predator Drone for surveillance of the 3,000 acre property. The unarmed plane was used to track suspects and confirm they had laid down their arms before SWAT teams moved in to make the arrest. The incident, which occurred in the summer, was the first known case of a drone being used to assist in the arrest American citizens on American soil. However, the department has borrowed the Predator Drones several times since.

Congress approved the purchase of the Predators in 2005 for the Customs and Border Protection to look for smugglers and illegal immigrants. Although charges have been made that there has been no public debate and Congress has not approved the use of the drones for civilian police forces, officials in the Customs and Border Protection point to tacit approval given by Congress during budget requests. In those requests, "interior law enforcement support" was cited as part of their mission.

The Supreme Court has long ago given approval of aerial surveillance, stating that anything that could be viewed from the air was legal without a warrant. However, whether the lawmakers had in mind a silent plane that could stay in the air for 20 hours is a question being asked by many privacy advocates.

However, drones are becoming more popular with local law enforcement due to budgetary constraints. Although a Predator Drone can cost $150 million dollars, smaller cheaper aircraft can be had for as little as $5,000 to several hundred thousand. And with an hourly operating cost at $30 an hour, it certainly looks attractive compared to a helicopter’s $500 an hour operating cost.

Of course, with the lower price tags come less capabilities. These are not high tech stealth planes capable of sneaking up on someone. As a Miami-Dade Police Department spokesman said, the planes sound like flying lawn mowers.

Meanwhile, privacy advocates are not the only interested parties in this debate. Pilots are concerned as more drones fill the airspace with no clear regulations. Pilots and safety organizations want to see the drones fall under the same regulations as all other planes.

Regardless of the pending debates, the reality is that drones are here and their prices and capabilities mean they will continue to be used.

So next time you see that scene in the movie where the bad guy parts the curtain to check the parking lot for cops, maybe he should be looking up too.

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