The Bravo 300 is manufactured here in New Orleans. Photo courtesy of Crescent Unmanned Systems

A month after The Lens began asking questions about city officials’ plans to use a U.S. Homeland Security Department aerial drone to monitor Super Bowl crowds, a spokesman for Mayor Mitch Landrieu said today that the city is scrapping those plans.

Spokesman Ryan Berni offered no reason for dropping the eye-in-the-sky technology, telling a reporter to submit a public-records request. In a brief phone interview, he would say only that the decision to ditch the drone was made “over the past several days.”

In a follow-up email, Berni said Homeland Security would be providing a manned helicopter, equipped with a camera, and that “the City learned by phone in the last few weeks” about the switch.

The reversal is a stark change from the excitement for potential drone use shown by Deputy Mayor Jerry Sneed, who oversees public safety for the city. Such unmanned aerial surveillance robots also could be used after the Super Bowl to monitor crowds during Carnival and the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival, Sneed suggested in an interview three weeks ago.

The policy change also stands in contrast to the city’s recent efforts to acquire an unmanned aerial vehicle on three fronts:

  • The New Orleans Police Department has met twice with a local drone manufacturer, based in NASA’s Michoud plant in eastern New Orleans.
  • The city recently tried to buy one of the flying unmanned robots using a federal grant for port security.
  • Before today’s reversal, three city officials confirmed that a government-supplied surveillance drone would be used over New Orleans during events associated with the upcoming Super Bowl, Feb. 3.

Drones have already gained a high profile for their prominent, if controversial, role in the war in Afghanistan and its spillover into neighboring Pakistan. Now their proliferation in domestic civilian settings is raising the hackles of civil libertarians concerned about privacy and constitutional issues.

Another line of criticism casts the widening domestic use of drones as part of the growing militarization of police work, as wars abroad haltingly wind down and the federal government seeks a soft landing for defense contractors.

In New Orleans, which under ex-mayor Ray Nagin proved stunningly incapable of successfully managing an earthbound crime-camera program, drones raise public-safety issues as well.

What if one crashes?

Not to worry, said Charles Easterling II, president and chief executive officer of Crescent Unmanned Systems, a drone manufacturer in New Orleans.

Easterling said his unit, the Bravo 300, contains “a significant amount of fail-safes” mandated by the Federal Aviation Administration.

For example, Easterling said that if a drone loses its ground-based communication link, the drone would “shoot up in the sky” and hover at an altitude lower than airplane flight paths but higher than treetops and buildings. Then the device would automatically land where it took off, he said.

The blades on his quad-rotor drones have guards that protect against damage should one hit anything, he added.

Easterling allowed for the unlikely event of a “catastrophic breakdown.”

“It can happen, but it’s very unlikely,” he said.

The New Orleans Police Department has met twice with Easterling’s company, police spokeswoman Remi Braden confirmed.

“A sergeant with the SWAT Tactical Unit attended a demonstration about a year ago at NASA in the east regarding unmanned aerial vehicles,” or UAVs, she said in a statement, adding that the sergeant also wanted to learn what was available.

However, the city cut no deal with Crescent Unmanned Systems.

“We did try to buy one of these UAVs through a [federal] security grant, but were denied,” Braden said, though Easterling said he wasn’t approached in that instance.

No grant was needed to secure the initial promise of a Homeland Security drone for football’s Super Bowl.

“The department of Homeland Security is providing us one for use during Super Bowl events,” Braden said on Aug. 13. She said the championship game provides just one example of how a domestic drone program would be useful to local law enforcement.

“It is important for the department to be aware of and educated about state-of-the-art [technology] that can best serve the community, especially since our city is host to an extraordinary number of events,” Braden said.

She said that surveillance drones are also helpful “when monitoring a tactical SWAT-type situation, sniper situation, hostage situation that may go mobile, biological, chemical releases, etc.”

She said the NOPD has temporarily shelved plans to buy its own drone from Crescent Unmanned Systems, but the local manufacturer has not given up.

“It’s a fledgling field,” Easterling said. “I think a lot of people are waiting to see what happens with these things.”

Sneed, New Orleans’ deputy mayor for public safety, said in mid-August that the city was looking beyond the Super Bowl, with an unabashed enthusiasm for drones befitting a 30-year veteran of the Marine Corps: “I think once we use it for this event, it will give us a hands-on ability to see does this make sense for us to really push for using one at other times, such as Mardi Gras, Jazz Fest, these other events that we have?” he said. “If it makes sense, we can push for more money, more grants.”

Flock of robots expected

The Federal Aviation Administration estimates that a domestic drone program could put up to 30,000 of the flying robots in American skies within a decade.

The agency has paved the way for local law enforcement to start using the drones through updated Federal Aviation Administration rules that, among other things, make it easier for police departments to secure necessary authorization.

The drones in question range from small units a foot or two across to larger unmanned vehicles that are the size and shape of a small airplane.

The relatively small Crescent Unmanned Systems model sells for about $100,000.

“It’s a whole lot cheaper than a helicopter,” Sneed said.

Meanwhile, the Department of Homeland Security is addressing border security challenges with civilian versions of the military’s Predator drone, the weapon widely in use against Taliban and al-Qaida targets in the Near East.

Decent drones available for hobbyists

Gadget geeks, meanwhile, are swooning over recreational drones.  They got cover-story treatment in July’s Wired magazine under the headline, “Here come the Drones! Small, cheap, flying robots that do your bidding. Why should the military have all the cool stuff?”

The article, written by a recreational drone user, noted that sales of domestic drones were outpacing the sale of drones to the military.

Easterling’s Bravo 300 model was based on the design of a recreational drone called the AR.Drone that retails for about $300 and can be bought at a shopping mall.

Asked about details of the city’s drone plans for the Super Bowl, Ryan Berni first stressed that the Super Bowl drone promised by Homeland Security would be unarmed.

Constitutional questions raised

But critics raise other concerns. They say the domestic drone push is going too far, too fast, raising constitutional issues around Fourth Amendment privacy rights and warrantless searches unconnected to a specific crime.

Civil libertarians are especially concerned about a lack of consistent protocols for what happens to the video recorded during a drone’s flight. The devices can pick a face out of a crowd from an altitude of up to 15,000 feet, but domestic drones fly at altitudes much lower than that, and can even swoop into buildings.

“The law hasn’t caught up with the technology,” said Trevor Timm of the Electronic Frontier Foundation. His organization, which is committed to stopping or slowing the domestic drone industry’s rapid ascent, has filed numerous requests under the Freedom of Information Act to see where drone-use certificates of authorization have been granted. In an email, a Federal Aviation Administration spokeswoman Laura Brown said “there were 308 COAs active as of mid-July 2012.”

The Seattle police department is one recipient, as is the Miami-Dade police department, whose drone was spotted flying over tourist areas on Memorial Day weekend.

According to the documents posted by the Electronic Frontier Foundation, Nicholls State University in Thibodaux also got an authorization to use a drone to track coastal erosion.

“Police departments are starting to buy the drones and getting authorizations to use them,” Timm said. “The police have been kind of mum about it, but over the next year you’ll see the use of them expand dramatically. Part of the argument that the police are making when applying for drone licensing is that they’re not going to be used to spy on the whole city,” he said.

“It just shows how Homeland Security is pushing drone use on all these local police stations,” Timm said. “DHS already has a multimillion-dollar program. It seems that Homeland Security is willing to share these drones even in non-border situations.”

Late last month, the International Association of Chiefs of Police issued an advisory calling for limited use of domestic drones by law enforcement — and insisted that all surveillance drones be unarmed.

“The [law enforcement] agency should assure the community that it values the protections provided citizens by the U.S. Constitution,” the advisory said. “Further, that the agency will operate the aircraft in full compliance with the mandates of the Constitution, federal, state and local law governing search and seizure.”

A ‘golden opportunity’

Before the city changed directions, Sneed said the drone offered by the Department of Homeland Security for the 2013 Super Bowl presented a “golden opportunity” to advance the city’s ongoing efforts get its own drone.

Apparently, the city has been eyeing a drone for some time now. “We thought about this a few years ago,” Sneed said—“flying one along the Mardi Gras routes.”

Sneed brushed off privacy issues. “Public safety is our main concern,” he said. “This is just one more tool to help officers do their job.”

He illuminated Braden’s statement about the failed recent attempt to buy a drone using federal grant money.

“We had the opportunity, like anyone else, to submit for various grants,” Sneed said. “Port security is one of those grants. We thought drones might be something we could use that we don’t have.”

It turned out the grant didn’t allow for purchase of a drone, Sneed said. He was unable to say with any certainty what the drone would have cost.

Cameras aren’t the only tools available

Crescent Unmanned Systems’ Bravo 300 looks like a sleek, oversized white insect with a camera or other gear mounted on its underside. Easterling’s models are designed to be “payload agnostic,” he said, meaning they can carry a variety of different snooping tools.

“There’s a wide array of sensor packages that we can add on,” said Easterling, stressing that he does not offer “weaponized platforms.”

Easterling’s drone is a quad-motor design that weighs less than 12 pounds and can stay aloft for up to an hour, he said. Besides law enforcement, the other applications cited by Easterling include power-line and oil-rig inspections, detection of chemical and biological agents, scientific research, and other search-and-rescue tools — thermal imaging, for example.

Easterling said that last year’s stubborn marsh fire in eastern New Orleans might have been put out sooner had a drone been deployed to pinpoint the source of the conflagration.

“There’s a lot of negative press and negative feelings about drones, but that is understandable,” Easterling said, adding that he is “absolutely concerned with increasing privacy concerns and privacy violations.”

A trip to Indianapolis

New Orleans city officials visited Indianapolis during the 2012 Super Bowl and met with Department of Homeland Security officials who, Sneed said, were operating a drone during the festivities.

Sneed said the Department of Homeland Security approached city officials: “We were offered the same type for use in the Super Bowl here, and we said yes.”

Berni cited fears of terrorist activities as the main motivator for the heightened security during the Super Bowl. “This is a high-level-threat security event,” Berni said.

Sneed said plans called for the drone to be operated out of the city’s Emergency Operations Center, which is manned by personnel from several city agencies — police, fire, emergency services and others.

Last month, Sneed said that Homeland Security officials would be working with New Orleans police officers at the Emergency Operations Center.

“The operation of these things—you have to have people who know what they are doing. DHS will be operating the drone,” he said. “Law enforcement will be monitoring the camera feed.”

If the drone “spots something, it can alert someone to it,” Sneed said. “If it sees a crime in progress, it would probably hover over it to see what is happening. Somebody is viewing the camera—the video screen is right in front of us. If he sees an incident or something going wrong, he can possibly direct officers to the scene.”

Sneed said the drone likely would have been used along Poydras Street.

Berni added that the drone would “obviously be used in areas where there are heavy, thick crowds, concentrations of people. Or in a place where we don’t have officers.”

New Orleans doesn’t yet have its own certificate of authorization. The Lens asked the Federal Aviation Administration if a local law enforcement agency could use a Homeland Security-operated drone if the local agency doesn’t have the authorization.

“A local law enforcement organization must have a COA to conduct its own operations,” FAA spokeswoman Brown said.

Concerns about ‘mission creep’

Civil libertarians are raising a red flag about the possible misuses of a roving unmanned eye in the sky.

“It’s a serious invasion of privacy when law enforcement is essentially engaging in surveillance of everybody whether they are under reasonable suspicion or not,” said Marjorie Esman, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Louisiana.

“This is a seriously troublesome issue as drones become increasingly used by law enforcement nationwide to spy on innocent people.”

It’s a concern shared by U.S. Rep. Jeff Landry, a tea party-endorsed Republican from the New Iberia area, who has emerged as one of the most strident elected opponents of the use of drones in American airspace.

“I don’t want the U.S. government to just fly around the country looking for something,” Landry said in an interview. “All that will do is fester itself into some kind of activity that will further erode the constitutional liberties that we have and that make us different from every other country in the world. Homeland Security should be worried about protecting our borders, plain and simple. This should raise an alarm that this government has eroded civil liberties to the point where someday we are going to wake up and say, what we thought we had, we no longer have.”

Timm of the Electronic Frontier Foundation has a related concern, what he calls the “militarization” of police departments in the post-9/11 era, and the attendant level of unease that comes with hands-on coordination between local police and the federal government.

The drones, he said, are an example of the blurring of traditional lines of authority and jurisdiction that has gone on since the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

“They say they are using the drone to fight terrorism, but it’s used for all other law enforcement activities,” Timm said.

“What happens is, the ultimate ‘mission creep,’ where soon it turns out that they’re not using it to fight terrorism, they’re using it to look for purse snatchers. It’s not the federal government’s job to do that.”

Homeland Security doesn’t answer questions

The Lens sent the following questions to the Department of Homeland Security, and they didn’t answer any of them, beyond denying everything New Orleans officials had initially asserted:

  • Will DHS be on-hand during the UAV’s deployment in New Orleans during the Super Bowl events, or are you simply loaning one to the city for the duration of this event and letting city law enforcement officials operate the device?
  • Has DHS provided or otherwise loaned domestic drones to the city of New Orleans in the past? If so, can you please tell The Lens when and where they were used?
  • Have DHS-supplied drones been used during other Super Bowls or other major sporting events?
  • What make and model is the drone that DHS is going to provide the NOPD/City of New Orleans for use during the Super Bowl?
  • Is the drone you will be providing to the City of New Orleans built by Crescent Unmanned Systems?
  • Is DHS assisting the city in figuring out how to utilize federal grant money to secure a drone of its own after the Super Bowl?
  • Does DHS have a written policy regarding the protocols and rules for law enforcement agencies using one of its drones? Does it have a written policy regarding use of drones by DHS itself?
  • If such policies exist, can The Lens please get a copy?
  • Will DHS be paid or otherwise compensated for letting the city use one of its UAVs? Can you describe what form this compensation will take?
  • Will the city of New Orleans be given the opportunity to purchase the DHS drone at the conclusion of the Super Bowl events?
  • How much did the DHS drone to be provided to NOPD during the Super Bowl events cost?
  • Can you send The Lens a picture of the drone that the NOPD will be using during the Super Bowl events?

Those questions were initially sent to the local office of Customs and Border Patrol, a unit within the Department of Homeland Security.

“CBP is not providing assistance with any UAS,” Customs and Border Patrol spokeswoman Nancy Bonnafonns said via email. “It is another DHS department and we have moved your inquiry on for further assistance as a result.”

Despite Bonnafonns’ comment — and the operational detail offered by Sneed and Berni — the Homeland Security public affairs office in Washington, D.C., responded to The Lens’ questions with a single on-the-record denial of everything Sneed, Berni and Braden said was being readied for the Super Bowl and surrounding events.

“The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) does not plan to operate a UAS in support of security efforts surrounding the 2013 Super Bowl in New Orleans, nor has DHS provided a UAS to NOPD,” Department of Homeland Security spokeswoman Nicole Stickel said.

Government officials explained that during events such as the Super Bowl, the Federal Aviation Administration issues flight restrictions that prohibit the use of drones. The restrictions, said Brown, only applied for an hour before and an hour after the game, and during the game itself.

City officials have said they would use the drone during Super Bowl events around the Superdome, not during the Super Bowl itself. Furthermore, most of this year’s Carnival parades in New Orleans will be taking place the week before and the week after the Super Bowl, and Sneed said the city had already explored the possibility of using a drone during Carnival.

The Department of Homeland Security used a drone — a Leptron Avenger — during the 2011 Super Bowl in Arlington, Texas. Numerous published reports said Arlington thus became the nation’s first police department to use a drone. Arlington police bought the unmanned helicopter from the Department of Homeland Security after the Super Bowl and posted pictures of it.

One report noted that the drone broke down soon after the Arlington police came into possession of it.

Homeland Security’s denial of the now-scrapped plans for a drone in New Orleans is unsurprising,  Timm said.

“Insofar as privacy goes, they’ve been avoiding the issue,” he said. “There were congressional hearings; DHS was invited to go and DHS refused to show up. Congressmen from both parties were lambasting them — they show up at all these trade shows, talk to vendors, but they can’t talk to congress.”

An industry in rapid expansion

As New Orleans dabbles with drones, the federal government has set the stage for a dramatically expanded domestic drone industry.

The Obama administration, which has relied heavily on Predator drones in overseas counterterrorist operations, supports development of a domestic drone industry, as does a tech-bedazzled Congressional Unmanned Systems Caucus, a group roundly criticized by drone opponents for being in the pocket of manufacturers.

Barriers to domestic drones are falling.

Easterling said the Federal Aviation Administration Modernization and Reform Act of 2012 “provided an easier and more expedited process” for securing authorization to fly a drone. Easterling hastened to add that the authorization did not create a “carte blanche, flying-anytime-you-want, anywhere-you-want” system.

Under Federal Aviation Administration guidelines, every drone he said, must utilize three operators: One is an FAA-certified pilot; one is an observer who “monitors the action in the sky” to make sure there is always line-of-sight visual contact with the drone; the third is a safety pilot, who “has full manual control over the device.”

The rapidly changing regulatory landscape has been a boon to Easterling.

A photojournalist with a hobbyist’s interest in drones, he started Dronemods, a precursor to his current company, in an apartment on Prytania Street.

Soon after, the self-described “tinkerer” secured a  $250,000 South Coast Angel Fund donation, moved from the Jefferson Parish business incubator at Avondale to NASA’s Michoud facility, and listed the U.S. Department of Justice as part of his client base — a relationship he refused to detail beyond a flat refusal to answer a question about whether he’d sold the department a drone. “I’m not at liberty to discuss that,” he said.

The FAA reauthorization act came with a proviso that the agency come up with six testing grounds around the country for unmanned domestic drones by the end of this year.

FAA documents made available by the Electronic Frontier Foundation show that NASA already has authorization to launch drones. The organization noted that the FAA would only admit that NASA has the authorization and has not, as yet, given any indication about which NASA facilities the authorization covers. The FAA did not provide further clarification on the question of the Michoud NASA plant’s authorization status and whether it covered New Orleans.

With the federal government pushing for a drone-filled American airspace, Timm said city lawmakers would be well-advised to get ahead of the unmanned-vehicle curve. He said officials here should sort out issues such as the storage of the video that is gathered by the drone — how long it is stored, where it is stored, and who has access to it — before any drones start flying over New Orleans.

“If the New Orleans City Council could get ahead of this issue and pass a binding ordinance limiting how police use drones, they could really be a leader in the country in how they respond to their police wanting to use drones,” Timm said.

The Lens asked Sneed and Berni whether anyone in the city had been tasked with creating a set of protocols for its future drone program.

“We’ve got enough to do without creating policies for items we don’t have,” Sneed said. “Once we get one, we’d determine the policies.”

Tom Gogola

Tom Gogola covered criminal justice for The Lens from February 2012 to May 2013. He is a veteran journalist and editor who has written on a range of subjects for many publications, including Newsday, New...