The proliferation of drones throughout the military — and into civilian law enforcement — can make it feel like we’re living in an airborne panopticon. But flying robots are agnostic about who they train their gaze upon, and can spy on cops as easily as they can spy on civilians.
In the video above, protesters in Warsaw got a drone’s eye view of a phalanx of police in riot gear during a heated Saturday demonstration. The drone — spotted by Wired editor-in-chief and drone-builder Chris Anderson — was a tiny Polish RoboKopter equipped with a videocamera.
As Chris observes, no more do citizens need to wait for news choppers to get aerial footage of a major event. With drones, they can shoot their own overhead video. But the implications run deeper than that.
The Occupy events around the country gained initial notoriety by filming and uploading incidents of apparent police brutality. Anyone with a cellphone camera and a YouTube account could become a videographer, focusing attention on behavior that cops or banks might not want broadcasted or that the media might not transmit. When the New York Police Department cleared out Zuccotti Park on Tuesday, out came the cellphones to document it.
Getting an aerial view is the next step in compelling DIY citizen video.
As Chris’ DIY Drones blog documents, it’s as simple as hooking a remote-controlled model aircraft to a camera, or tricking it out to your own specifications. Some Occupy chapters already provide mobile livecasts using Wi-Fi hot spots — more on that in a forthcoming piece for our sister blog, Threat Level — and placing cameras and laptops in baby strollers. It’s not crazy to think that an enterprising Occupier might go vertical.
Imagine what that would have shown in a hairy situation like the Occupy Oakland tear gas incident. An aerial view gives an entirely different perspective what constitutes a legitimate — and illegitimate — threat.
It would also complicate an emerging trend: police use of aerial drones. Which happens to be the subject of my piece in the December issue of Playboy.
It’s not yet online, but the article examines a police department in Miami-Dade that recently got the first-ever thumbs up from the Federal Aviation Administration to send drones into the skies for law enforcement in an American city. A sampling:
The [Miami-Dade Police Department] swears that those it’s paid to protect and serve don’t need to worry about being spied upon nonstop. First of all, the T-Hawk can’t fly for longer than 46 minutes. For another, it’s as loud as a lawnmower …
But perhaps the biggest reason Miami-Dade cops are pledging restraint is because they fear the FAA will repeal their T-Hawk’s Certification of Authorization — or jeopardize another police department’s chance at receiving a certificate — if they use it frivolously or mistakenly crash it into a local news helicopter. “One person can really make a negative impact and set the program back several years,” says Andrew Cohen, the MDPD sergeant who runs the aviation unit at the Kendall-Tamiami airport.
That’s because the use of urban airspace is even more heavily restricted than the use of public parks. The Miami cops have had a tough time getting their clearance; think about how hard it’ll be for protesters. Still, the air is slowly opening up. And the cops don’t have to be the only ones with eyes in the sky.