GASTONIA, N.C. -- A Charlotte-area police department has found itself in the middle of a growing debate over the use of drones on American soil – even though its drone has done little but collect dust in the last five years.
At issue is a $30,000, 5-foot, radio-controlled “Cyberbug” drone that the Gaston County Police Department bought with drug asset forfeiture funds in 2006 and shelved two years later, saying mechanical problems and increased restrictions made it too costly to fly.
Gaston police say they had thought little about the device until last week.
“I don’t know that we ever had a practical operation,” said Capt. Bill Melton. “We did some training.”
Unmanned aerial vehicles have become a popular – and controversial – weapon in the wars America has fought in the 21st century. They fly like airplanes but can be piloted remotely and don’t put American lives at risk.
They can also be cheaper than buying and operating, say, a police helicopter. So U.S. law enforcement agencies have pondered using them on U.S. soil.
But civil libertarians and others are uneasy about using tools of war in the United States against American citizens – even if they don’t carry weapons.
And some groups have been vocal about whether the drones, which have been put to the greatest use in the areas of surveillance and reconnaissance, could be used to spy on Americans.
Monroe City Council members said they weighed the debate on Tuesday before authorizing the city’s Police Department to buy a $44,000 drone.
On Wednesday, U.S. Sen. Rand Paul, a Kentucky Republican, cited the use of unmanned military drones during his 13-hour filibuster to delay the vote for a new CIA director.
He offered to stop if the Senate voted on his resolution stating that using drones on U.S. soil against American citizens violates the Constitution. Democrats rejected the offer.
A day later, the N.C. branch of the American Civil Liberties Union announced it was filing public records requests for information about drones and other military technologies that are increasingly being used by civilian police departments on American soil.
“We were all relatively taken aback when we learned that Gaston County (Police) had a drone,” said Chris Brook, a legal director for the ACLU.
Suddenly, the ACLU and other voices in the growing debate about drones wondered what that department did with the now-controversial device.
The answer: Not very much.
Gaston County police had tested the device on a brisk day in February 2006. But with cameras rolling and reporters watching, the 5-foot unmanned aircraft broke a rudder and wouldn’t turn left.
Then it had trouble picking up a signal from the global positioning satellites that help guide it, even though it was being controlled by employees for the company that made it.
After a series similar devices crashed, the Federal Aviation Administration told Gaston police that its drone operators would have to meet tougher restrictions if they wanted to fly it again. Drone operators had to have the same flight physical as pilots and would need to pass a flying knowledge test.
The drone needed an upgrade to make it safer to fly, which would also mean spending taxpayer money.
“It was cost-prohibitive to upgrade that technology for what we need in law enforcement,” Melton said. “A lot of things that go into it just didn’t make sense for us.”