The US military’s unmanned aerial surveillance capabilities have long been the envy of many state and local governments—and, according to an unclassified Pentagon report, at least one local politician was hoping that its drones could help their city identify areas that needed roadwork.
"A U.S. Marine Corp UAS unit told us that once each month their wing hosts a community leadership program where local politicians are invited to view and learn about the capabilities of the various aircraft on base," says the report, which comes from the Department of Defense Inspector General’s office. "During one such event, a local mayor requested UAS support to look for potholes in the area.”
In this case, the unidentified mayor’s well-intentioned request was denied. The Marines concluded that while the operation “could provide realistic training for their pilots and sensor operators,” asking for approval for “a UAS mission of this type did not make operational sense,” according to the report.
The example of the mayor being denied pothole-searching drones was intended to show that the Pentagon is selective about using drones on home soil
But even if it isn’t deploying drones for city maintenance, documents released through a Freedom of Information Act request show that the Pentagon has indeed operated unmanned military aircraft over US soil for state and local authorities.
A partial list of domestic drone missions shows that the DoD has flown at least nine of these missions since 2011, further illustrating that the US government’s domestic use of military drones has gone far beyond national security and border patrol objectives.
Potholes are a nuisance. Photo: Michael Gil/Flickr
While it’s known that the Department of Homeland Security flies Predator and Reaper drones near the Mexican border, the newly revealed Inspector General report shows for the first time specific instances where the Pentagon operated the aircraft in non-military domestic airspace on behalf of local governments and federal agencies for a variety of “emergency” purposes.
The drone missions range in duration from a few days to several weeks, and include two search and rescue missions in California aided by MQ-9 Reaper drones in 2015; an MQ-1 Predator drone observing the California wildfire in 2013; National Guard training exercises in Ohio and North Dakota utilizing the hand-launched RQ-11 Raven and high-flying RQ-4 Global Hawk; and two instances where the popular DJI Phantom consumer quadcopter was used to track flooding in South Carolina and the Mississippi River Valley.
The report depicts the Pentagon’s domestic drone flights as lawful and limited only to emergency situations and training, and is supported by a DoD policy requiring every domestic drone mission to receive approval from the Secretary of Defense. The example of the unnamed city mayor being denied pothole-searching drones was intended to emphasize the Pentagon’s selective criteria.
A list of domestic drone missions the Pentagon has operated since 2011.
Still, there could be understandable ambivalence about these missions, especially given that the DoD aren’t the only ones expanding how and where drones can be used by the authorities. The FBI has previously admitted it uses consumer drones “seldom” and for “very limited” purposes in the US. More recently, local police in South Padre Island, TX, told the Washington Post they would be using consumer drones to keep an eye on spring break revelers this year.
Much like that famous line from Field of Dreams, the guiding principle here is that if you build powerful military surveillance capabilities, it will only be a matter of time before local police and governments start asking to use them far beyond their original, intended purpose.