The VICE Channels

    The Rising Cost of Drone Dirt

    Written by

    Brian Anderson

    Features Editor

    Georgia Tech's GAUSS drone may represent the future of traffic monitoring. But how would you know? (via Georgia Tech)

    So you want to submit a Freedom of Information Act request to Public Agency X. You know the agency--let's say a top-tier research institution like Georgia Tech--is dabbling in drone research and development, and you want the dirt. And that's great--if you've got $115,200 to spare.  

    OK, so Georgia Tech is probably an extraordinary case. But as US News reports, the research university is one of "many" public agencies now demanding compensation for complying with an inundation of drone-related FOIA requests. Why? To hear the agencies tell it, pulling records pertinent to a specific FOIA request apparently demands a shit ton of labor. Matt Nagel, a Georgia Tech representative, writes to the nonprofit MuckRock that compiling the university's drone records would take a team of 20 people three months.

    "[Georgia Tech] does a lot of research involving drones," Nagel writes. "To fulfill your request, researchers will need to go through all of their files to determine which files contain information about drone research." Once these files are flagged, "qualified personnel" have to then plow through each file, redacting any "proprietary, classified or export controlled information that is permitted to be redacted under the Act."

    I can sort of buy that argument. When budgets continue getting slashed because the government is perpetually incapable of getting its shit together, a little 'some-some for fullfilling a drone FOIA borders on something like fair. Right?

    Then again, for the patchy-pants Journalist or investigative nonprofit--both of which can typically waive FOIA-payment requests on grounds that sunshining the information is in the public service--Georgia Tech saying it'll take a cool $100,000 to release relevant drone documents is all a way of saying Fuck Off without saying Fuck Off. Hell, even the $7,751 going rate for documents relating to the dronings on of the University of North Dakota, one of a crop of universities specializing in the fine art of selling drone diplomas, can be called a bulwark. Same goes for the Virginia Commonwealth University's $1,694 FOIA pricetag. (And same for the Marine Corps' $714 ask. For real, what freelancer could possibly afford that?)

    To MuckRock's counting, of the 375 drone FOIA requests submitted to public agencies since 2012, nearly a quarter have gone unanswered, with others getting denied outright. (Together with the Electronic Frontier Froundation, MuckRock is compiling a so-called "drone census" of those public agencies that are using unmanned aerial vehicles.) At least 16 of the agencies hit with FOIAs are demanding fees--which they're allowed to do, to be sure. But the question is, should they? 

    Reach Brian at brian@motherboard.tv. @thebanderson // @VICEdrone