There was a time when the Department of Homeland Security wasn’t enthusiastic about its drone fleet. Unmanned flying surveillance ‘bots had the potential to freak out the public, top DHS science and technology officials worried. That time has evidently passed — particularly for smaller flying spies.
In the coming months, Fort Sill, Oklahoma will become a proving ground to learn what small surveillance drones can add to “first responder, law enforcement and border security scenarios,” according to a recent solicitation to the country’s various drone manufacturers. Each selected drone will undergo five days’ worth of tests as part of a new program from DHS’ Science and Technology directorate, called Robotic Aircraft for Public Safety or, gloriously, RAPS.
Like many in the military experimenting with drone miniaturization, DHS is thinking small. The drones it wants to bring to Fort Sill will ideally be launched by hand, like the Army and Marines’ Raven. They should weigh under 25 pounds. Assembly should take a matter of minutes, and training for their remote pilots and technician a matter of days. DHS isn’t looking for drones that can loiter over an area for a long time: just 30 minutes to two hours, a hint that the department doesn’t foresee drones becoming a primary surveillance tool. “Law enforcement operations, search and rescue, and fire and hazardous material spill response” are some of the potential drone missions the RAPS program envisions.
Still, it’s something of a turnaround for DHS. Back in January 2011, Ruth Doherty, a DHS science & tech official, expressed skepticism about using drones to patrol for signs of terrorism or to protect big public events like the Super Bowl. “A case has to be made that they’re economically feasible, not intrusive and acceptable to the public,” Doherty told Danger Room at a D.C. conference. In addition to the potential public outcry, drones have been a headache for DHS at times. A DHS ground station in 2010 lost communications with one of the first Predators it used to surveil the southern U.S. border, and the department has had trouble finding enough pilots and technicians to operate its initial drone fleet.
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