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    Here's the Beef, You Drones

    Written by

    Brian Anderson

    Features Editor

    Most talk around the Federal Aviation Administration throttling to fully integrate unmanned aerial vehicles into U.S. airspace by 2015 has taken to breathless alarmism. I won’t even begin to except myself, here – the accidental highs and lows of being watched do pose legitimate threats to some of our most basic rights, not least the desire to just be left the hell alone. But I also think it’s worthwhile noting what some of a still limited number of drones currently cruising domestic airspace have their sights set on. As far as we can (maybe) tell? Cows.

    Yes, cows.

    I don’t say this to bludgeon that worn line about how we mere mortals are really just a big, lumbering herd of helpless shit boxes being driven, cud masticating and oblivious, to slaughter. While that’s maybe somewhat true, I’m talking cattle, baby – the untold hundreds of thousands (millions, more likely) of smelly, rugged ungulates trampling around the sprawling feedlots, farms and dairies that patchwork the American heartland.

    When it comes to today’s domestic drones, here’s the beef.

    Last June, for one, a SWAT team in Grand Forks, North Dakota, scrambled a Department of Homeland Security Predator spy drone when police had trouble apprehending Rodney Brossart, a staunch sovereignist who’d been disputing with authorities over the rightful ownership of a half-dozen cows that grazed onto his farm. When the cops finally descended onto Brossart’s property their repeated taserings were apparently no match for the cattle crusader, who’d armed himself and his family and threatened to kill any law who dared encroach further. The ranchers then receded into their compound, at which point the SWAT team relied on the DHS drone – which an attorney for the state argues was launched “only after warrants were issued” – to pinpoint the Brossart’s locations before their eventual capture.

    The 16-hour standoff is the first known use of a Predator to arrest domestic civilians.

    And now there are reports that just last week Nebraska’s congressional delegation sent a joint letter to the head of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency criticizing its drone flights that take photos of unsuspecting livestock farms. The EPA officials in Region 7, which covers Nebraska, Iowa, Missouri and Kansas, say drones are a cost-effective – and totally legal – approach to monitoring for potential runoff contamination into streams. Here’s part of the agency’s written response to questions of legality posed by the Omaha World-Herald:

    Courts, including the Supreme Court, have found similar types of flights to be legal (for example to take aerial photographs of a chemical manufacturing facility) and EPA would use such flights in appropriate instances to protect people and the environment from violations of the Clean Water Act.

    Sen. Mike Johanns (R-Neb.), a former U.S. agriculture secretary, isn’t buying it. He told the World-Herald that he doubts the EPA has congressional approval to be an all-seeing eye in he sky. “They are just way on the outer limits of any authority they’ve been granted,” Johanns said. And as Adrian Smith (R-Neb.), co-chair with the Modern Agricultural and Congressional Rural caucuses, explained to The New American, “landowners deserve legitimate justification given the sensitivity of the information gathered by flyovers.”

    The urge, here, is to parse this all out through the prisms of privacy, security, and public safety, and to be all doom ‘n gloom about it. But no. Not today. For the sake of argument, and to put a check on some of that breathless alarmism, why not try and see it the other way? Maybe the EPA, however imperfect its dronings are (the agency has staged seven flights in Iowa, nine in Nebraska, and maintains all its aircraft at ceilings of 1,200 – 1,500 feet) is onto something. If anything, it’s your classic Triple D justification: Use robots for any and all tasks that are dirty, dangerous, or dull. Turns out there’s still a whole lot of that sort of work. Here, then, are just a few of the ways some folks argue domestic drones can be used for something like “good.”

    SNIFFING OUT DIRTY WATER

    (via sUAS News)

    That red gash in the photo? See it there in the bottom left corner? Yeah. That’s a creek stained crimson from the blood of pigs. An amateur small-scale drone enthusiast snapped the photo earlier this year while flying a camera-equipped UAV around Dallas. Speaking with sUAS News, he said, “I was looking at images after the flight that showed a blood red creek and was thinking, could this really be what I think it is? Can you really do that, surely not? Whatever it is, it was flat out gross.”

    Turns out it’s discharge from the Columbia Meat Packing Company, and it’s being pumped directly into Cedar Creek, which feeds into the larger Trinity River. While it’s unclear just how the pig’s blood discharged from the plant – whether it channeled out through a secondary pipe not connected to the plant’s waste water system, or not – what’s certain is that Columbia Packing is now pretty much fucked, and rightfully so. The EPA, the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, and Texas Parks and Wildlife all promptly search warranted the plant to High Hell after the DIY droner, who wishes to remain unnamed, turned over the photo.

    WORKING AT DIZZYING HEIGHTS

    A recent PBS Frontline – Propublica investigation details the dark underbelly of lightning-fast mobile phone speeds. Between 2003 and 2011, the report states, “50 climbers died working on cell sites, more than half of the nearly 100 who were killed on communications towers.” These “climbers” often have the thrill-seeking streak, preferring the rush of free climbing over constraining harnesses. (Hey, not like the Occupational Safety and Health Administration requires harnesses, or anything.) So now, more and more, this is the price we pay for no dropped cell service: Dropping tower workers.

    One solution? Drones. Send the stupid things up 1,500 feet, instead, and let them take care of any maintenance or imaging. “Technologically, it’s no longer necessary to send someone scrambling hundreds of feet up a tower to take photos,” Kashmir Hill writes in Forbes. “There’s a drone app for that.”

    FLYING INTO HURRICANES

    Global Hawk drone all souped-up for hurricane research (via PopSci / NASA)

    The U.S. has been fighting the good fight against hurricanes since the early 1960s, those wild, crazy Project STORMFURY days. The Holy Grail then, as it is now, is How can we best predict (and thus warn coastal civilians), model, and thwart the wretched tempests?

    We may be close to figuring it all out. Two years ago, NASA launched an unprecedented drone mission to study the maelstrom that is hurricane formation. The GRIP (Genesis and Rapid Intensification Processes) project straps over a dozen satellite-quality gadgets to a Global Hawk drone, a modified DC-8 and a converted, Cold War-era WB-57 bomber plane. This trio, as you’d expect, flies headlong into a storm’s boundary layers. And yet it’s the Global Hawk, whose specs include “a microwave radiometer and radiosondes,” according to PopSci, that’s tailored to study the innards of a hurricane – its wind speeds, at horizontals and verticals; temperature, and how it influences inner-cloud water droplet formations; humidity; pressure; and lightning. Because who would ever fly into storms that powerful?

    PINPOINTING DAMAGED UTILITY LINES

    Assuming there will be a few kinks to iron out with GRIP (I mean, it’s NASA we’re talking about), we can still expect twisted, mangled aftermaths in the wake of land-fallen hurricanes. Chucking a camera-equipped drone up over damaged areas to stream video to “incident commanders on the utility side,” Matthew Olearczyk, senior program manager at the Electric Power Research Institute, tells Renew Grid Magazine. “We believe it can help cut down the restoration time and, in some cases, help the public effort by getting the power back faster.”

    MAKING EXTREME SPORTS LOOK MORE EXTREME

    Holy cow.

    CONNECTIONS:

    Reach this writer at brian@motherboard.tv. @thebanderson

    (Top image via)

    Topics: drones, uavs, FAA, EPA, cows, cattle, technology-and-philosophy, digital-urbanism, doing-good

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