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Drone use will only grow domestically

Whether it’s tracking cellphones or tracking people with unmanned flying drones, there needs to be clear laws that protect the legitimate rights of citizens from prying (robotic) eyes. The federal government has been slow to define the ability of law enforcement agencies to use evolving technologies to investigate the activities of American citizens.

The Grand Forks County Sheriff’s Department recently obtained a Federal Aviation Administration permit to operate a miniature helicopter drone in eastern North Dakota. The department also is looking at a fixed-wing drone.

The drones will carry no weapons, but will be outfitted with cameras capable of monitoring activities on the ground — traffic, hazardous spills, active crime scenes, natural disasters.

In Nelson County last summer, there was a standoff, and law enforcement officials used a drone for surveillance from the U.S. Customs Department, which typically had been used to monitor the U.S.-Canadian border. That seems to be a particularly effective use of small unmanned aircraft by a local law enforcement agency.

A drone with a camera payload could be used to search for a lost child, or scout the perimeters of a raging prairie fire.

Grand Forks County, due to its relationship with the University of North Dakota, which has a stake in the use of drones, is on the cutting edge of law enforcement use of this technology. It’s like a beta project, and a lot of departments will be watching to see how well it works. If the program is successful, expect it to be quickly replicated across North Dakota.

Draganflyer X6 is the helicopter drone used by Grand Forks. It stands 10 inches high, 33 inches in length and 36 inches in width. It can carry an 18-ounce payload.

While the drones have great potential for law enforcement, use of the drones also could be abused and the privacy of citizens invaded. This is not paranoia, but experience with past breakthroughs in technology and their conflicts with citizen rights. UND acknowledges this gap in legal understanding and has established a task force to set ethical standards and guidelines for privacy at the university. That’s wise.

The dramatic use of drones in Afghanistan, and in the war on terror in general, are instructive as to how this technology might translate to use by domestic law enforcement. It also gives weight to the need for clear ethical standards and privacy protections.

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