The Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) told the Police Board on Saturday that they will purchase two unarmed drones to secure the grounds at this summer's G8 summit at the Lough Erne Resort. The drones will cost £1m, or about $1.5 million. Drones are rapidly becoming the norm for surveillance in the US and UK. The PSNI will continue to use the drones after the summit for anti-terrorism and surveillance of criminals.
Tensions in Northern Ireland are high after violent protests erupted when the Belfast City Council voted to limit the days the Union Flag flies from the city hall. Sources in the British government have warned of a possible attack on the summit by a group calling itself the Real Irish Republican Army.
However, the PSNI has to concern itself with more than the IRA. World leaders Barack Obama (United States), Angela Merkel (Germany), David Cameron (United Kingdom), Shinzo Abe (Japan), Mario Monti (Italy), Vladimir Putin (Russia), Stephen Harper (Canada), and Francois Hollande (France) will attend the G8 summit.
The G8 summit has been a target of demonstrations in the past. In Genoa in 2001, hundreds of protesters were injured and one was killed. That incident and the terrorism in the U.S. on 9/11 prompted organizers to move the summit to more remote locations. This year the location is fairly remote: the five-star resort is more than 150 miles from the nearest major city, Enniskillen, which has 13,000 residents. The resort is mostly surrounded by water, and most of the roads in the surrounding area are one or two lanes.
The PSNI's new drones will supplement their helicopters, and a comparison with those helicopters does much to explain the rise of drones, in and out of war zones. The helicopters used by the PSNI cost £7m, and a further £1.5 to operate annually. The drones are much cheaper to buy and operate. They are more covert, and don't expose pilots to danger. One of the drones the PSNI plans to purchase can even fit in a backpack, and only takes minutes to assemble and take off.
Such "backpack" drones include the Wasp, which weighs less than a pound, or the RQ-11 Raven, which weighs just 4.2 pounds and is launched by an operator simply tossing it into the air. Other, slightly larger drones include the 13 pound Puma AE. AE stands for all-environment: the drone can land anywhere from tight streets to bodies of water.
Drones have been used for years in war, but only recently have they begun to be used for police work. In the UK, where CCTVs already blanket the streets, the Metropolitan Police used drones to patrol the Olympics in 2012. Over 150 drone permits have been granted including three for three police forces. The European Union is working on a plan to allow drones in civil airspace by 2016.
Drone use is also expanding in the U.S. Here is a map of drone authorizations in the US in 2012. Several government organizations use drones in the US, including the military, Homeland Security and Customs and Border Patrol. Police forces around the country use drones for anti-drug operations, among other operations such as traffic monitoring, search and rescue.
While the military has used drones for violent strikes abroad, so far military and police domestic drone use has been restricted to surveillance, though this surveillance has led to an arrest on at least one occasion. The drone's surveillance capabilities are truly awesome: the "gorgon stare" system has 12 cameras that can record video from within a circle eight miles around. The ARGUS system being developed will use 368 sensors to make the world's largest camera, with a resolution of 1.8 gigapixels.
The Federal Aviation Administration Modernization and Reform Act of 2012, signed into law in February, requires the agency to formulate regulations for drone testing and licensing by 2015. The agency estimates there might be 30,000 drones in the U.S. by 2020.
The Government Accountability Office warned Congress after the law passed that it fails to account for concerns around privacy, security, and GPS jamming and spoofing. Another concern is that many drones don't have systems to detect other aircraft. Predator drones have fallen out of the sky eight times in 80,000 flight hours.
The American Civil Liberties Union is pushing for legislation that requires law enforcement to obtain a probable cause warrant before employing drones for surveillance; a state-by-state breakdown of the legislation's status is available here.
Commercial surveillance uses are also starting to expand. Japanese company Secom has started to rent out a drone as part of its security package. It is the world's first use of drones by a private security company.
It's clear that drones will be an increasingly common part of domestic surveillance efforts. What remains to be seen is how the government will regulate their manufacture and use. Their use on the high profile stage of the G8 summit may affect the future of the entire technology.