Pilotless remote-control aircraft have changed the way U.S. troops fight insurgents in territory that's rough, remote and difficult to traverse without crashing headlong into barriers as destructive as they are difficult to detect.
The military experience with unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV) has been so spectacular that police and emergency services in the U.S. have been eager to put a few of their own drones in the air.
Those who have been paying attention to drone testing programs in Texas might be a little less eager.
Unexpected costs, information leaks, mechanical failures and pilot errors have plagued tests conducted by a number of Texas state and local law enforcement agencies, beginning with the early 2009 test of a UAV that could peer through walls and ceilings using infrared, radar, visual-spectrum and other sensors.
The test was supposed to be secret; it ended up on YouTube after the story was broken by local TV news crews.
Another "secret" test – a demonstration the FAA conducted to show local cops what they were missing – was also busted by local TV crews, who got video of the not-too-encouraging results.
In January of last year the Washington Post broke the story of successful tests of a UAV called the Wasp that was used successfully during tests and a number of live SWAT operations, but set off public fears that the stealthy police drone would spend as much time spying on law-abiding citizens as scouting fugitive hideouts for SWAT.
The Texas Department of Public Safety (DPS) – the state police oversight and coordination agency – ended the tests in August because the tiny, relatively fragile UAVs spent far more time than they should on the ground being repaired after rough landings on Texas' rocky soil.
Bill Nabors, chief pilot of the 46-pilot Texas DPS Aircraft Section told the Electronic Frontier Foundation that the small drones didn't fly well in Texas-sized winds and that maintenance was far too big a headache to make the UAVs practical for police work, let alone allow DPS to figure out if they were effective at patrolling the Mexican border or other surveillance tests.
A Freedom of Information Act request netted EFF copies of some of the bills for upkeep on the Wasp Unmanned Aircraft Systems and Ground Control stations and a much clearer picture of how far from an everyday resource UAVs really are.
Drones are safer for pilots, dangerous for everyone else
Now safety is turning out to be an issue as well, following an accident in which a drone being tested by the Montgomery County Sheriff's Office north of Houston crashed into an armored SWAT vehicle that was being loaded with weapons and ammunition for a training exercise.
The Montgomery County Sheriff's Office has been testing $300,000 ShadowHawk helicopter drones, which were paid for by grants from the Dept. of Homeland Security.
The drone – larger than the Wasp and capable of being armed with shotgun shells as well as the cameras the test drone carried – lost radio contact with the controller when it was 18 feet off the ground.
Rather than sailing off on its own, the drone is programmed to go into an automatic-shutdown-and-landing routine when it loses contact with its base station.
The drone that crashed wasn't the one purchased by the Sheriff's department; it was a more advanced version brought in specifically for the test by manufacturer Vanguard Defense Industries
Instead it crashed into the tanklike SWAT vehicle, though neither vehicle was seriously damaged.
The crash isn't terribly unusual, either, according to a 2008 General Accountability Office report that found 65 percent of drone crashes were caused by mechanical failures, many of which included a permanent or temporary loss of contact with its controller.
Drones are far more likely to lose contact in the kind of urban areas police use them than in the relatively open battlefields for which they were developed and from which came the data from 199 crashes analyzed by the GAO.
Drones: Unreliable but soon to be ubiquitous
Expensive, crash prone or not, unmanned aerial vehicles will become far more common in the U.S. following legislation signed by President Obama ordering the FAA to approve more UAVs for law enforcement and fire/emergency uses beginning in 90 days.
The FAA has restricted use of drones domestically due to concerns that UAVs flown by untrained operators would become a hazard to other aircraft and danger to people on the ground.
The Obama order gives the FAA until Sept. 30, 2015 to make legal drones that are lighter than 4.4 pounds and fly lower than 400 feet.
They won't just be for police, though. The legislation doesn't limit the uses for which its drones can be used, which will almost certainly make life much easier for paparazzi, stalkative exes and hordes of the intrusive, nosy and curious.
It will also make life much less private for a population struggling with the loss of privacy online and, very possibly, not yet ready to give it up in their backyards to crash-prone, high-maintenance r/c helicopters that may be relatives of the Predators and GlobalHawks of the world, but without the reliability, trained operators and reason for poking their noses into someone else's business in the first place.
Read more of Kevin Fogarty's CoreIT blog and follow the latest IT news at ITworld. Follow Kevin on Twitter at @KevinFogarty. For the latest IT news, analysis and how-tos, follow ITworld on Twitter and Facebook.