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Drones over America: public safety benefit or 'creepy' privacy threat?

Drones are not just for tracking terrorists abroad. Some 327 are authorized to fly in US airspace – most for military training. But as their numbers grow, so is domestic scrutiny.

By Anna MulrineStaff writer / March 13, 2013

Seattle Police Officer Jim Britt demonstrated an unmanned aerial vehicle during a public meeting. Seattle later decided to drop its drone program.

Colin Diltz/The Seattle Times/AP/File

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Washington

Shortly after Alan Frazier became a part-time deputy sheriff in Grand Forks, N.D., the police began looking into the possibility of buying some aircraft to boost their law enforcement capabilities. They wanted some help doing things like finding missing people or carrying out rescues in a region dotted by farmsteads threatened by flooding that wipes out access to roads.

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Buying a turbine engine helicopter, however, would cost $25 million, a prohibitive price tag even with 11 law enforcement agencies – eight from North Dakota and three in western Minnesota – willing to share the cost.

So Mr. Frazier, also an assistant professor of aviation at the University of North Dakota (UND), began looking into unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) as a possible alternative.

But what appears, on one level, to be a sensible, practical, and affordable solution for local law enforcement – the price tag for a small UAV is about the cost of a tricked-out new police cruiser at $50,000 – has run smack into public concerns about yet another high-tech invasion of privacy and the popular image of drones as stealthy weapons used against terrorists.

Nonetheless, the technology's potential benefits in pursuing a raft of public safety measures at relatively low cost have enormous appeal for law enforcement agencies across the country, since President Obama signed a bill last year directing the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to further open US airspace to drones for both public and private use.

Even before that, the number of permits, known as certificates of authorization (COAs), that the FAA issued to organizations to fly UAVs more than doubled from 146 in 2009 to 313 in 2011. As of February 2013 there were 327 active COAs.

The bulk of these permits go to the US military for training, and the Pentagon expects their numbers to grow considerably in the years to come. According to a March 2011 Pentagon estimate, the Department of Defense will have 197 drones at 105 US bases by 2015.

The US Border Patrol has the country's largest fleet of UAVs for domestic surveillance, including nine Predator drones that patrol regions like the Rio Grande, searching for illegal immigrants and drug smugglers. Unlike the missile-firing Predators used by the Central Intelligence Agency to hunt Al Qaeda operatives and their allies, the domestic version of the aircraft – say, those used by the border patrol – is more typically equipped with night-vision technology and long-range cameras that can read license plates. Groups like the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) also complain that these drones have see-through imaging technology similar to those used in airports, as well as facial recognition software tied to federal databases.

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