Drones Over Protests in Minneapolis: Military Drones Over Cities Won’t Help the Commercial Industry (Op-Ed)

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We write with grave concern about the use of Department of Homeland Security (DHS) resources—including drones and armed uniformed officers—to surveil and intimidate peaceful protesters who were exercising their First Amendment rights to protest the murder of George Floyd by the Minneapolis Police Department.

The CBP says that the drone was not used for surveillance purposes.  Acting CBP Commissioner Mark Morgan told ABC News that the drone was present for “law and order.”  “We weren’t taking any information on law abiding protesters, but we were absolutely there to ensure that the safety of folks there as well as to enforce, and make sure law and order remain,” he said.

These Days, All Publicity is Bad Publicity

The protests are big news in the U.S. right now.  Law enforcement is big news in the U.S. right now.  Policing tactics are big news in the U.S. right now.  So the use of big military drones with names like “Predator”  – drones that have been used for humanitarian and disaster recovery, but are associated with the word “surveillance” – are also big news.

This highly politicized news cycle cements the association between unmanned vehicles and surveillance.  This type of news increases the public uneasiness over the use of commercial drones in their own communities – even if those commercial drones are used to deliver critical supplies, or to make fixing a roof much easier.  That uneasiness is not assuaged even if those commercial drones have friendly names like “Inspire” or “Evo.”  (As Air Force veteran and drone professional Dawn Zoldi pointed out in a recent conversation, “Words count… if you call something a ‘Predator’ or a ‘Reaper’ you’ve made it intimidating.”)

Making the Distinction

It’s up to the drone industry – and news outlets – to make the distinction between small commercial drones and military drones clear. (The distinction between commercial and military drones is not a distinction between drones used for law enforcement and drones used in the private sector.  Drones in community law enforcement provide tremendous service to communities in applications like search and rescue, accident or crime scene documentation, and in situational awareness that protects officers.  The vast majority of drones deployed in public safety are the same hardware type that is found on commercial and industrial worksites: small drones, friendly names.)

Finally, it’s up to the drone industry to prove, over and over again, that drones are there to make work safer and more effective, to save lives and protect communities: not to spy on them.  The drone industry is going to be held to a high standard of transparency in policy and procedures until drones are fully integrated into the airspace and have achieved broad public acceptance.  All stakeholders will have to do their part to get us there.