Thursday, November 22, 2007

Houston police ahead in arms race

The Houston Police Department has been caught conducting secret tests of an unmanned aircraft similar to the surveillance drones used by the military and border patrol. Farmers and ranchers west of the city noticed mysterious black vans and unannounced roadblocks and called the local news. Station KPRC sent their traffic helicopter out and got some pictures of the drone in flight. When the police contacted the station and told them the airspace was closed, KPRC called their bluff and checked with the Federal Aviation Administration, who told them that there were no restrictions on that area.

The drones give the Houston Police better intelligence gathering capabilities than most European countries enjoy. They are being rather coy about what they actually plan to use the drones to do mentioning only "mobility" or traffic issues and unspecified "tactical" uses. Being more stable and having better cameras than current helicopters, the drones could be used for surveillance that fuzzes (no pun intended) the boundaries of permitted warrentless searches. That's an issue that will be fought out in court. Meanwhile, the question most Houstonians should ask is: at $30,000 to $1 million each, do these drones really add to the city's crime fighting capabilities or is the city wasting money on showy toys that could better be spent putting more officers on the streets?

Although the FAA has not yet approved the airworthiness of the drones or their use in urban airspace, the city plans to begin enforcement with them next summer.

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