They can record video images and produce heat maps. They can track fleeing criminals, stranded hikers--or, just as easily, political protesters. And for cash-strapped police departments, they're a lot more affordable than helicopters.
Law enforcement officials across the country see great potential in drones. These unmanned aircraft that most people associate with killing terrorists in countries like Pakistan and Yemen are on the brink of evolving into a big domestic industry. It's no longer a question of whether drones will appear in the skies above the United States, but how soon and under what conditions.
Already, drones are raising concerns about a key constitutional issue: the right to privacy, guaranteed in the Fourth Amendment.
"To me, it's Big Brother in the sky," says Dave Norris, a city councilman in Charlottesville, Virginia, which in February became the first city in the U.S. to restrict the use of drones. "I don't mean to sound conspiratorial about it, but these drones are coming, and we need to put some safeguards in place so they are not abused."
Experts see a wide variety of possible uses for drones: monitoring floods; observing crops for signs of blight or insect invasion; and conducting aerial inspections of oil pipelines or wind turbines. Real estate agents have already started using drones to take inexpensive aerial shots of properties they're selling.
Finding Fugitives & Lost Children
Last year, a new federal law paved the way for drones to be used commercially in the U.S. and made it easier for government agencies to obtain them. The Department of Homeland Security offered grants to help local authorities buy drones.
Drone manufacturers began marketing small, lightweight devices specifically for policing. These aircraft are already used to monitor America's borders and by a handful of police departments, including Miami, Florida, and Mesa County, Colorado, to provide backup surveillance for SWAT teams and occasionally to help find fugitives. Emergency-services agencies around the nation are beginning to explore their potential for everything from spotting forest fires to finding lost children.
"In this time of austerity, we are always looking for sensible and cost-effective methods to improve public safety," says Captain Tom Madigan of the Alameda County Sheriff's Department in California. "We are not looking at military-grade Predator drones. They are not armed."
Still, some are leery about the idea of drones hovering...