Government & Politics

A drone of our own! How the city should sell its latest dream

An eye in the sky, the Bravo 300 is made in New Orleans but has yet to find a buyer in local government. Photo courtesy of Crescent Unmanned Systems

City Hall has reversed plans to use drone surveillance over New Orleans during the Super Bowl in February.

That’s surprising, because Deputy Mayor Jerry Sneed had said the city intended to have the Department of Homeland Security fly a drone over crowds in town for the big game. The city has wanted a drone for years, Sneed claimed, and had considered  using one during Mardi Gras (which reminds me of Carnival-surveillance fears I aired in this post.)

The Super Bowl drone seemed like a “go” until city officials abruptly changed course, just as The Lens prepared to posta story about it.

It remains to be seen whether the city’s about face was a response to potential media attention or something else.  Either way it’s a significant step, because in recent years the Super Bowl has served as an easy “big event” excuse for host cities to try out drones. Last year visiting New Orleans officials were impressed by Indianapolis’ use of the technology. And the year before, law enforcement in Arlington, Texas, used a Department of Homeland Security drone to patrol Super Bowl crowds. In fact, the Arlington police department liked their Leptron Avenger drone so much, they bought it. .

I had assumed New Orleans would follow suit and seize the “golden opportunity,” as Sneed termed it, to test out a drone over swarms of football fans. (Based on the Saints dismal early season performance, it appears that all of the 2013 Super Bowl fans will arrive from out of town.) Afterwards, I assumed, NOPD Superintendent Ronal Serpas would decide to purchase a drone or two for regular use monitoring us locals. Our city needs the latest in crime-fighting technology to keep us safe, he’d likely argue. In fact, according to Tom Gogola’s Lens story, the city would already have a drone flying over the port, had their federal grant application to buy one been accepted.

To review: Deputy Mayor Sneed says the city has previously considered acquiring drones for use at big events such as Mardi Gras and that officials were impressed by the technology when they visited Indianapolis earlier this year to check out its use during Super Bowl. Then, in August the NOPD confirms that the DHS will provide them with drone surveillance feeds for the Super Bowl. Yet, weeks later, New Orleans abruptly opts out of the drone deal.

That’s a puzzling development because—as 2011 Super Bowl host city Arlington can attest—the big game offers the perfect “excuse” to introduce drone technology and prepare for its purchase and deployment. The Super Bowl is a highly commercialized affair: leaders of the host city salivate at the potential economic impact and the national attention it brings. They’ll gladly take any measure to prevent security issues from interrupting the massive influx of football money. It’s important to not besmirch the city’s “brand” during Super Bowl week.

An event like Mardi Gras, on the other hand, is a different animal. It’s not a national commercial for beer and the almighty NFL. Carnival, thank Zeus, is infused with local tradition. The point of it is masked abandon and rolling fun, not team merchandise and inane $2 million television spots.

So if the city wants a drone but is opting not to use the “golden opportunity” of the Super Bowl to introduce it, how do they intend to persuade locals to accept the high-flying surveillance robots?

NOPD police spokeswoman Remi Braden had previously said that drones are helpful when monitoring large crowds or “when monitoring a tactical SWAT-type situation, sniper situation, hostage situation that may go mobile, biological, chemical releases, etc.”

Yikes. Invoking the specter of terrorism or a hostage crisis is pretty scary. I don’t think that argument will carry the day because those seem like remote situations.

But drone use in disaster conditions … now there’s an argument with promise! Disasters happen here all the time. It’s almost become a way of life. Everyone here can relate.

Drones searching for flood victims after a hurricane or levee break? Absolutely. Drones monitoring record-setting oil spills and industrial chemical leaks? Check. Drones tracking tremorous sinkhole expansion and putrid swamp fires? Sure! Drones assessing ineffectual sand berms and the erosion of our coastline? The more the merrier!

If the city’s not going to use the Super Bowl as the pretext to insert drones into our skies, then it’s going to have to work harder to market these flying spy-cams. Disaster response seems like a compelling way to do it—just add a streaming video feed accessible to the public.

Remember how the nation was transfixed by the underwater camera footage of black bubbles leaking from the Macondo well? That’s what the city should do during the next Louisiana catastrophe: install a publicly accessible live feed from a flying disaster drone. I guarantee it will be a hit. Viewers can feel like a first responder from the comfort of their own home, searching their monitors for signs of missing people (or pets) in, say, a recently flooded area. And let’s not forget to put a chat box in the sidebar, a place to type urgent messages, such as: “I think I saw something!” or “Turn left, go back!” or “Thatz only a dead cow u disaztr drone noob!”

The city should seek to put a friendly face on its drone and create ways for the public to “buy in” to the new technology. Don’t just use security arguments about spying on the bad guys. Instead, go the mass entertainment route. Once the public becomes addicted to streaming disaster drone footage, they’ll never fret about the troubling privacy implications.

Next column: more drone talk!

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