Predator Drone Surveillance in Minneapolis Is Just the Tip of the Iceberg
1,100 law enforcement departments across the country now use drones
It was the digital trail that gave away the Predator above Minneapolis.
At around 12 p.m. on May 29, journalist Jason Paladino noticed an unusual aircraft on an unusual flight pattern above Minneapolis. Paladino, an investigative reporter at the Project on Government Oversight, used open-source flight data to identify the machine as an unarmed Predator B drone, circling the sky above ongoing protests following the police murder of George Floyd.
The Predator spent just 88 minutes over Minneapolis. Afterwards, U.S. Customs and Border Protection released a statement saying the drone was there to provide situation awareness via live video feed to federal law enforcement. By 1:15 p.m. it had already departed from the city, en route to a more routine border patrol.
For observers, the Predator drone was taken as a grim portent: Were the tools of the forever war finally returning home to watch American civilians with suspicion, as they had once scanned Afghanistan and Iraq in the name of counterinsurgency?
In truth, the unarmed Predator drone is part of a largely hidden system of aerial law enforcement with roots in the war on drugs that started in the 1970s. Thanks to modern transponder requirements, it is now possible for the public to track some of these surveillance efforts. But there is a real danger that many of the drones currently used by police will be exempt from this type of tracking in the future.
Were the tools of the forever war finally returning home to watch American civilians with suspicion?
Part of the Federal Aviation Administration’s (FAA) recent modernization efforts require that all aircraft above a certain size carry a transponder, constantly broadcasting its location. This data is useful for keeping routes uncluttered, reconstructing what happened in a crash, and generally managing the flow of humans in the sky.
It is also an invaluable tool for those seeking to track surveillance flights.
John Wiseman is a Disney Imagineer who, in his off time, tracks aerial surveillance flights. Using ADS-B Exchange, a noncommercial flight tracking site that plots broadcast flight data on a map, he has created “Advisory Circular,” a collection of city-specific Twitter bots that look for circular flights over cities, which may indicate surveillance.
“I wanted to create something that helped people experience what was happening over them all the time,” says Wiseman. “I think of it more as a phenomenological record than a breaking news tool.”
That same data also has immediate public value, especially when cross-checked with ownership logs and records. BuzzFeed News released maps of flights tracked between Friday May 29 and Sunday May 31 over six major cities with ongoing protests. Like Wiseman’s circular, the BuzzFeed maps are built on ADS-B Exchange.
It was the same type of flight patterns and flight data that gave away an FBI plane operating over Baltimore in advance of and during the 2015 protests over the police murder of Freddie Gray. And it is also this type flight data that will allow activists to monitor, in some capacity, the camera-toting Cessnas set to take to the skies above Baltimore this year, carrying a tracking tool for a company literally named “Persistent Surveillance System.”
But these systems only identify the biggest aircraft, and they miss the most significant expansion in police aerial surveillance in decades: the widespread adoption and employment of small drones. While the FAA is in the process of mandating drones heavier than half a pound be eventually fitted with a remote ID system, those same proposed rules exempt drones used by government and law enforcement.
By March 2020, over 1,100 police departments in the United States had acquired some form of drone, adding low-flying consumer and industrial models to a suite of surveillance tools that already includes helicopters.
Many of these drones are compact enough to fit in the back of a squad car and can be in the sky in minutes, offering police a real-time overhead view of people in normal or infrared vision. Paired with facial recognition software, the video can be a lasting threat to people partaking in a protest. More immediately, the ability to put a quadcopter with cameras in the sky allows law enforcement to operate with greater information around the people it is trying to catch or corral, revealing movement in real time.
But these systems only identify the biggest aircraft, and they miss the most significant expansion in police aerial surveillance in decades.
Police drones are cheap, with costs in the hundreds and thousands of dollars, rather than the hundreds of thousands or millions it takes to buy a Predator drone or helicopter. They are also easily upgradeable, from software rollouts of new flight controls to the simple disposability of upgrading a $3,000 flying machine as soon as a better model is available. For now, the greatest limitation on police drone flights is their battery life. But many drones are designed now with batteries easy to swap in the field. Drones are often flown in “orbits,” with people flying in a rotation of drones to keep surveillance up.
Models like the DJI Inspire are so small as to be almost imperceptible to people 200 feet below. The faint whiz of the rotors may be the only sign protests may have that they’re being surveilled.
If these small drones remain exempt from publicly available transponder-based tracking, it will be harder for the public to monitor their use. Without legislation or rulemaking requiring public data on police drones, spotting patterns of their use and abuse will be time-consuming and labor intensive, if at all possible.
And this isn’t just a future hypothetical. The public received a glimpse into the scale and nature of law enforcement drone usage when, in 2019, a private drone management software company exposed its own database, which included police drone use information.
While the history of police aviation goes back over a century, police use of smaller drones is still relatively new. Its norms and rules are malleable. And unlike the rules governing officers on the ground, which can vary greatly by locality, the Federal government has a direct role in writing the rules for objects in the sky. As the FAA prepares to mandate rules for tracking drones in the sky, it could expand that tracking to cover police drones, too.