FORT SILL — The small, winged drone quietly soared overhead as SWAT team members closed in on a building at Fort Sill.
When a suspect sprinted from the structure, the drone banked through a cloudless afternoon sky in an effort to track the person.
A few miles away, two Lockheed Martin technicians sat in a converted bedroom of a ranch-style house using a laptop computer to control the drone’s movements. They followed the action on a video relay.
The simulated chase this month was among the first test flights in a U.S. Department of Homeland Security program designed to evaluate the possible civilian use of “Small Unmanned Aircraft Systems.”
In coming months, dozens of companies will come to Oklahoma to put their state-of-the-art aerial vehicles through a series of scenarios designed to test their capabilities in situations that police and firefighters might encounter, from search and rescue operations to hostage situations.
Although drones are now a staple in the military world, efforts to deploy them domestically in recent years have, for the most part, stalled.
U.S. Customs and Border Protection operates eight Predator drones along the nation’s northern and southern borders, and two more have been ordered. About a dozen police departments have acquired drones with the help of Homeland Security Department grants, but Federal Aviation Administration safety regulations and other problems have kept many of those aircraft grounded.
This year, however, Congress ordered regulators to ease restrictions on the use of commercial drones by 2015. That’s expected to open a pipeline of purchasing.
Of 20,000 law enforcement agencies nationwide, only about 500 have helicopters or airplanes, which can cost millions of dollars to buy, fly and maintain, said Ben Gielow, a spokesman for the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International, which represents 7,000 members in government, industry and academia.
Drones, on the other hand, can cost as little as tens of thousands of dollars to own and operate.
Meanwhile, technological advances in sensors, improvements in drone performance and economies of scale continue to drive down costs.
“You won’t get the same capability as a manned platform,” Gielow said. “But if at a fraction of that price you can get 60 or 70 percent of those capabilities, it’s a no brainer.”
The FAA estimates that by 2020, there could be 20,000 drones flying in American skies.
And there’s no shortage of companies willing to serve the market. When the Homeland Security Department issued a request for vendors to participate in the Oklahoma project, the agency received 85 responses.
“The demand is high. Very high,” said John Appleby, the Homeland Security official overseeing the testing program. Test organizers plan to analyze and publish the performance results to aid potential buyers.
Drones can be invaluable tools, capable of providing some of the best and cheapest feedback in emergency situations such as forest fires or hazardous material spills.
Drones provide a safe way to look over a hill or around a corner at a lower cost than it takes to operate a typical police cruiser, proponents say.
But the expansion of drone use on the domestic front is raising some concerns in Congress and among privacy advocates.
Many of the drones being tested come with very advanced surveillance technology, including radar, video cameras, infrared thermal imagers and wireless network detectors that can collect sensitive information. It’s unclear what, if any, limits Congress will put on their use, said Amie Stepanovich, of the Electronic Privacy Information Center, a Washington, D.C., public interest research center.
“These are incredibly invasive surveillance tools. Because of that, they are likely to invade privacy and subject people to this robust, constant surveillance,” Stepanovich said. “I think people are now really aware of the risks that are involved in encouraging the use of drones in the United States without first providing protections against their overuse and the increase in surveillance as they take over the skies.”
Earlier this month, U.S. Rep. Ed Markey, D-Mass., introduced legislation that seeks to bar the FAA from issuing licenses unless the application explains, among other things, who will operate the drone, where it will be flown and what kind of data will be collected. The bill also calls for the FAA to create a public website that includes license information, the times and locations of drone flights and any data security breaches by a license holder.
The legislation also would require a warrant or extreme circumstances for law enforcement to conduct surveillance.
Gielow said his group has met with privacy advocates and more than 100 congressional offices seeking a compromise bill that privacy advocates and industry can support.
“People feel the government will abuse this technology,” Gielow said. “If we can assure them that government won’t abuse it, or if they do they will be dealt with and punished, then the public will have some confidence.”
“Let’s not pass Draconian restrictions that can prevent it from being used for good public-safety missions,” Gielow said.
No systems being tested in Oklahoma are capable of facial recognition, and images are not being matched against any database, according to a privacy impact statement filed by the Homeland Security Department. Any images collected of non-volunteers or of areas outside the test boundaries are deleted.
Rural test site
Mission control for the drone tests is a converted one-story brick house surrounded by cow pastures near Elgin.
To reach the Oklahoma Training Center for Unmanned Systems, visitors travel a potholed, two-lane blacktop and turn into a driveway flanked by entry posts topped with black horse heads. The center also includes an airplane hangar and a bumpy runway that offers immediate access to Fort Sill’s restricted airspace.
The test site is operated by Oklahoma State University’s Multispectral Laboratory, which provides logistics and support for the federal program.
The drones being tested will be both fixed- and rotary-wing aircraft that weigh less than 25 pounds and that can be assembled and launched quickly. Flight tests for each system take place over five days. The tests will measure setup time, handling, video quality, reliability and other characteristics.
“The end point is open,” said Appleby, the Homeland Security official overseeing the testing. “We hope it will go a year or even two.”
Little local interest
Several local agencies said they have no plans to pursue drone technology.
A spokesman with the Oklahoma County Sheriff’s Department said the topic had not been discussed.
A spokesman for the Oklahoma National Guard, which has dozens of helicopters and airplanes, said that although it has a representative on the drone testing program’s working group, it has no immediate need for such aircraft.
“I think we can meet all of our current mission with the assets we currently have,” Maj. Geoff Legler said.
The Oklahoma Department of Public Safety, which flies seven planes and two helicopters, also has not had any discussion about the possible use of drones, a spokesman said.
But Lt. George Brown didn’t rule out their possible use in the future. “Anytime we can put an unmanned drone in a situation that doesn’t put a trooper or a pilot in danger, why not be interested in that?” he said.
The Oklahoma City Police Department has had discussions about drone capabilities, but Capt. Dexter Nelson said “as far as us getting them, I don’t see that in the realm of possibility.”
“I don’t think the civilian population of the United States is ready for unmanned aircraft flying over their neighborhoods,” Nelson said. “The general public knows that technology is to be used in war. I don’t think they’re ready for that.”