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    LA Cop Christopher Dorner Is Not the First American to Be Hunted by Drones on US Soil

    Written by

    Brian Anderson

    Features Editor

    For all we know, it could be happening right now--high above the pine line a robot hovers, looking down. On suspicions that at-large cop vigilante Christopher Dorner is holed up east of Los Angeles in the rugged and snowy San Bernardino Mountains, law enforcement officials have apparently taken to aerial spy drones, in addition to ramping up drone surveillance along the Mexico border, to find the man.

    Word of the move broke this weekend in a report in the Express. An unnamed senior police source told the British outlet that certain drone-ready thermal imaging capabilities may offer the only hope for pinpointing Dorner, who's wanted in connection to the recent shooting deaths of a police officer in Riverside and of a former police chief's daughter and fiancé. "On the ground, it's like looking for a needle in a haystack," the official added. On Saturday, the report continues, as some 125 officers canvassed Big Bear Lake for the "Rambo-style" Naval reservist and former Los Angeles cop, "it was revealed that Dorner has become the first human target for remotely-controlled airborne drones on US soil."

    And just like that, breathless tweeting and sub-thread chatter alike were off to the races. You know that cop killer Dorner? He's the first person ever to be tracked by drones on American soil. It was a provocative, if dire claim. And it still is. But is it true? 

    Christopher Dorner caught on security camera near San Diego (via)

    If in fact drones are being used here, it's hard to say what kind. The Express article makes no mention as to what sort of spy bird authorities are relying on to survey tracts of wilderness for a lone human with survivalist training (and who's promising to wage asymmetrical warfare on the police, to boot). When he was asked whether or not unmanned systems had already taken to the skies to sniff out Dorner, Riverside Police Chief Sergio Diaz said the search team is "using all the tools" at its disposal.

    One could imagine those tools being quad- or hexacopters--small-fry drones that are far, far cheaper and stealthier than manned helicopters, and that can be outfitted with precision HD imagers (or guns). Yet even as the Federal Aviation Administration hastens approvals for these sorts of drone flights by local and federal agencies, using mini drones for manhunts is still quite uncommon. The tech is almost over early adopter phase, but not quite. So if indeed Dorner's got the buzz of mini drones to worry about than yes, he's very well one of the first humans, if not the first, on US soil to warrant scrambling small-scale emergency drones. 

    A Los Angeles County Sheriff's Deputy assembles the SkySeer, an autonomous drone aircraft (AP Photo/Damian Dovarganes)

    If we're talking big Predator or Reaper drones--the same systems used throughout the Middle East and Horn of Africa to spy on and kill suspected terrorists--hunting for Dorner, no, even that isn't precedent setting. The US's borders with Mexico and Canada have for years been watched by hulking surveillance drones. In 2011, law enforcement in North Dakota called in an Air Force Predator drone to assist in the arrest of a sovereigntist family who were refusing to let cops onto their property after stealing some cows from a neighbor. That episode--if you want to put numbers on all this--was the first official instance of drones being used to spy on humans on American soil. It's a landmark case that as of August 2012 was upheld by a North Dakota court

    But let's be real. It's not just bad guys--as of last year, US military drone pilots were running surveillance-training exercises on unknowing civilians in the American southwest. 

    From Remote Control War

    That said, the prospect of drones over Christopher Dorner suggests something far more revealing than misleading headlines and nut grafs. It suggests not only that drones are here--that wartime's spy birds, if you'll forgive the line, have come home to roost--but that we could be entering an age of retributive Samaritan drones.  

    True, authorities are urging residents believed to be in Dorner's path to stay indoors, to not form local gangs to aid the search for Dorner, who wrote in a chilling Facebook manifesto that he'd "utilise every bit of small arms training, demolition, and survival training I've been given" to exact revenge on what he consideres a wrongful dismissal from the force. But the LAPD just posted a $1 million reward for information leading to Dorner's capture--the biggest reward of its kind ever posted in the region. Southern California, of course, is an incubator for hobbyist droners. Not like they should liftoff their DIY drones, or anything, without the reasonable expectation of getting into serious shitstorms with authorities and, potentially, Dorner himself. But don't be surprised when you hear about it hapenning. You want to talk Firsts? That would do certainly do it.  

    Just don't expect Dorner to not open fire from the trees. 

    Top image via

    Reach Brian at brian@motherboard.tv. @thebanderson