The First Legal, Armed Police Drones Are Here!

Thanks to drone industry lobbyists, we now have armed police drones in one of our states. How long before other legislatures are purchased and pressured?

It is a small start. The first armed police drones only have taser weapons. But it is still a start. Where will it end?

The most disturbing element in this is the role of technology businesses in taking sides in the legislative process. Much of the Daily Beast article is taken up with the debate in the legislature about whether to require a warrant for drone surveillance over private property. I tend to favor a warrant but I can also see why law enforcement would claim they have a right to public space. It isn’t a straightforward Constitutional issue because human flight was not reality when the Constitution was written.

But why should tech companies be taking sides in that legal issue?

[See also, “Law Enforcement Is Changing: Drones Being Used More Often.”]

The Daily Beast reports on what happened when the North Dakota legislature considered a bill to require a warrant for police drone use.

A representative from the North Dakota Department of Commerce, the vice president of an economic development group, the founder of a drone company, and the director of the University of North Dakota’s drone major program all testified against the bill.

Why would a bunch of business types want to stop something like warrants for drones?

“I think when you’re trying to stimulate an industry in your state, you don’t want things that would potentially have a chilling effect on [drone] manufacturers,” said Al Frazier, a Grand Forks sheriff’s deputy who pilots the drones.

Organizations like the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International track legislation, especially any laws that appear to limit drone “development,” according to Keith Lund of the Grand Forks Regional Economic Development Corporation.

“Requiring a search warrant for surveillance is ‘restricting development?’” asked Rep. Gary Paur, a Republican, at a hearing.

“It’s really all about the commercial development, which is where all of this is heading,” Lund replied. “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,” Lund said.

In other words, limit civil liberties so Big Drone can spread its wings.

Drones in North Dakota are a profitable enterprise in a state hit hard by the oil bust. Companies that market machines for agricultural and commercial use have been popping up in industrial parks on the outskirts of Grand Forks for the better part of the last three years. The university, one of the city’s largest employers, even offers a four-year degree in drones. The Air Force has partnered with the private sector to create a drone research and development park, too.

Notice in the last paragraph that military developments are “stimulating” changes in business, law, and police work.

The good news for (some) privacy advocates is that the law passed requiring a warrant for drone use. The bad news is that the drones were legalized to use non-lethal weaponry.

How this clause managed to be inserted in the law seems mysterious. Nothing is even said in the story to indicate anyone in law enforcement was advocating such a thing. The sense of the story seems to be that by pushing these kinds of innovations the drone tech industry will have new products to sell to police.

Is that a good reason to decide to allow armed police drones?