What privacy debate? Police drone use in Israel flies under the radar

Growing civilian drone use has raised safety and privacy concerns in the US. But when drones were approved to enhance security for light-rail trains in Jerusalem, hardly anyone took notice.

Dusan Vranic/AP/File
An Israeli drone circles over Gaza City on Aug. 3, 2014.

For years, stone-throwing has been an integral part of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict – tough to fight on foot and undesirable to fight by tank.

But fighting it by air: That’s a new idea.

And that’s precisely what Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat decided to do when rioting broke out this summer along the city’s light-rail train line following the brutal revenge killing of a Palestinian teenager by Jewish extremists.

An Israeli company called Bladeworx fitted drones with thermal cameras and flew them just ahead of the light-rail trains as they passed near trouble spots. The drones relaying real-time video to the train operators, police, and even City Hall, enabling officials to spot potential attackers and track those who tried to escape.

No one said anything about privacy concerns.

That stands in stark contrast to the United States, where the buzz over rising civilian drone use – for everything from security to package deliveries – is being met by expressions of concern from safety and privacy advocates. While the Federal Aviation Administration has issued hundreds of permits, largely to the military, to fly drones in civilian airspace, a clamor from local police departments and other law enforcement agencies to obtain such permits has led to efforts in local and state governments to declare their districts drone free.

Part of it may be the small scale of deployment in Israel so far. But in a conflict zone where Israelis place a high value on security and Palestinians face far more disruptive policies than surveillance, it hasn’t even registered on the radar of civil rights groups or privacy experts.

Israel, which invented Unmanned Aerial Vehicles and now exports $1 billion in UAVs per year, has long sold drones for military purposes. But the market for homeland security and civilian uses such as agriculture is growing fast and is projected to overtake the military market. Israeli companies are not only coming up with creative ways to serve such needs at home, but they’re looking to tap in to the market abroad.

A surveillance balloon made by Israeli company RT, for example, was deployed at the World Cup this summer in Brazil, which spent $4.62 billion on Israeli UAVs between 2005-12. So far, however, few Israeli companies have been able to hurdle the regulatory barriers to operating in the US.

Still, there is interest. Top brass from the Los Angeles Police Department checked out Israeli drones on an unusually high-level visit earlier this year, a visit criticized by pro-Palestinian activists given Israel’s use of militarized drones and mass surveillance to monitor, control, and sometimes kill Palestinians.

Itai Toren, vice president for business development, sales, and marketing at drone manufacturer Bluebird, says the limitations placed on police use of UAVs in America so far “is holding back the whole market.”

In the case of Bladeworx, which specializes in aerial photography, last year it became one of the first two Israeli companies authorized to operate drones for civilian purposes, and the Jerusalem municipality helped expedite the additional regulatory paperwork needed for the light-rail project. All the operators have commercial pilot's licenses as well.

The multirotor drones used by the company, which run from $2,000 to $100,000, are relatively small and lightweight. But even a 13-pound craft with 16-inch carbon blades rotating quickly can pose a serious threat if it falls from the sky.

From the rooftop of an old police station in Jerusalem’s Shuafat neighborhood, the Bladeworx team operated drones providing surveillance for the better part of a month, and helped the police identify some of the stone-throwers, says founder Ran Krauss.

“I hope the Israeli police will soon open up such a unit,” he says. “It’s what can and should be done.”

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