Why Do Cops Need Weaponized Drones?

Bill 1328 just passed, making North Dakota the first state in the US to legalize police use of drones equipped with rubber bullets, pepper spray, tasers and more. The police, however, say they'll only use the drones for search and rescue missions and to photograph crimes scenes. So, remind us again, why do we need weaponized drones?

Well, that certainly didn’t go according to plan.

North Dakota’s Bill 1328, originally designed to ban all weapons from police drones and require police to obtain a search warrant before employing drones in an investigation, has taken a wrong turn. A lobbying committee got involved and amended the bill to prohibit drones from being equipped with “lethal weapons.”

The bill just passed. North Dakota is now the first state in the US to legalize police use of weaponized drones.

Now any weapons that are “less than lethal” - rubber bullets, pepper spray, tasers, tear gas - can legally be used by police drones in North Dakota. Sounds like a great idea, no? Rep. Rick Becker (R-Bismarck), who introduced the original bill, is a little less than happy.

“This is one I’m not in full agreement with,” he tells The Daily Beast, which first reported the news. “I wish it was any weapon. ... In my opinion there should be a nice, red line: Drones should not be weaponized. Period.”

How could anyone disagree? The aforementioned “less than lethal” weapons can certainly be deadly. As The Guardian points out, law enforcement officials have already killed some 759 Americans this year, and 39 of those were caused by tasers. According to Mic, over 500 people were killed in the US between 2001 and 2013 by stun guns.

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So how did this change come about? Bruce Burkett from the North Dakota Peace Officer’s Association amended the bill, but he had a lot of help. North Dakota is one of six pilot programs designated by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) for trying out commercial drone use in civilian airspace. The University of North Dakota even offers a major in unmanned aircraft systems operations.

Local officials thought the original bill would have stifled drone development in the area.

“It’s really all about the commercial development, which is where all of this is heading,” Keith Lund of the Grand Forks Regional Economic Development Corporation, said during the bill’s hearing in March. “If [a law] is somehow limiting commercial, law enforcement development… that is a negative in terms of companies looking and investing in opportunities in the state of North Dakota.”

It gets better. Law enforcement officials in North Dakota claim to value drones. According to the FAA, the Grand Forks County Sheriff’s Department launched more than 400 drone “operations” from 2009 through 2014 - more than any other law enforcement agency. However, documents obtained from the sheriff’s office by The Daily Beast, say the agency has flown only “21 missions” with drones.

Law enforcement and union lobbyists assure lawmakers, however, that their drones will only be used in non-criminal situations, such as search and rescue missions and photographing crimes scenes. There are so many questions:

  • Why do drones need weapons if they’re used only in non-criminal situations?
  • How skilled are the police officers at flying? Again, they’ve only flown 21 missions
  • How good is their aim?
  • How do you ensure one of these weaponized drones doesn’t fall into the wrong hands?

Of course, this legislation comes at a time when the FAA continues to work out regulations for personal drones in the public airspace. It also comes just more than a month after 18-year-old Austin Haughwout of Clinton, Connecticut posted a video on YouTube showing a drone he built firing a handgun four times.

The incident sparked an investigation to determine whether any aviation laws were violated. Local police, however, said Haughwout didn’t appear to break any laws. The gun-firing drone was just more bad publicity for the drone industry, amid all the drone sightings near airports and drones interfering with firefighters battling raging wildfires in California.

I can’t imagine weaponized drones will be popular among the anti-drone crowd, either, especially if they’re being used by the police. Just seems like a bad idea all around, especially given the violent nature this country seems to be falling into.

About the Author

Steve Crowe · Steve Crowe is managing editor of Robotics Trends. Steve has been writing about technology since 2008. He lives in Belchertown, MA with his wife and daughter.
Contact Steve Crowe: scrowe@ehpub.com  ·  View More by Steve Crowe.


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