PROJECT NEW HORIZONS
Anti-crime robots fly over Los Angeles
In 2006, the police department of LA decided to experiment with remote-controlled drones to patrol the city. What happened since then?
Disclaimer: Please note this is the translation of an old article based on true facts, as reported by professional journalists, complemented by a few personal thoughts. The content hereby written does not reflect in any way the position of the company I currently work for.
With this article, I kick off a brand new series on Medium: Project New Horizons. I have always had a big passion for the future and new technologies. Over the past years, I spent time collecting information and articles revolving around the topics of futuristic events, the rise of disruptive technologies and what’s to come. I believe now it’s a good time to share info from the past to reflect on how things evolved. So, without further ado, enjoy reading what the past thought the future would be like, while comparing with the reality we are living in.
THE OLD ARTICLE (2006)
Los Angeles (USA) — Los Angeles police have a new ally in crime prevention: a remote-controlled robot plane capable of monitoring large areas of the city thanks to high-definition cameras. The experimentation has already started: as soon as possible, a flock of 20 anti-crime drones will take off at a height of about 100 meters from the ground.
“We are now truly avant-garde”
…said Commander Sid Heal, head of the LAPD technology division. The drones, already used by the US military in various military missions abroad, will carry out surveillance activities: a police officer, armed with a laptop, will be able to control the robot’s movements directly from his car, using it to search the most dangerous residential areas and criminals.
The 20 robots will gradually replace the 18 helicopters that Los Angeles police use to chase fleeing bandits or to monitor the movements of a suspect. The robots will also be used in drug operations: equipped with infrared sensors, the planes will be able to locate the so-called “marijuana factories”, where thousands of Indian hemp plants are grown under the light of powerful artificial lights.
The cost of each robot, assembled in steel and weighing only five kilograms, is around $25,000 and according to the experts of the LAPD this is a very small figure, compared to the costs related to the maintenance and management of a helicopter with a human crew.
The only drawback: the plane, just over two meters long and powered by electric batteries, cannot reach high speeds and for this reason, it will not be used in pursuits of criminals on board vehicles.
Lawyer Charles Whitebread, professor at the University of Southern California, raises an important question regarding the legitimacy of drones: according to Whitebread, the policemen who will use the robotic planes risk breaking privacy with extreme ease.
According to US law, in fact, the collection of forensic evidence by police officers can only be conducted with a special mandate signed by the magistrates. If the planes were used to frame criminals, as in the case of infrared drug prospecting, the policemen must have the necessary legal authorizations.
Commander Heal thinks there are no problems, and in an interview reported by the AP agency, he recalled that “there are no problems for the privacy of citizens”: the use of drones will be limited to targeted operations and to patrol the hottest areas of Los Angeles, such as the Latin American area of South Central.
MORE RECENT TIMES (2014)
Six years ago, I found out that LAPD was forced to declare that his department wouldn’t actually be using “flying-robots”. According to an article released on Vice by Charles Davis, Chief Charlie Beck proclaimed “I will not sacrifice public support for a piece of police equipment”, saying he would seek input from the public before ever allowing a drone to fly over the city. “As of now, the city’s drones are stashed away in a warehouse owned by the Department of Homeland Security”.
Apparently, the police did not like the word “drone”. The Seattle police department, as an example, tried to call them instead “unmanned aerial vehicles” and “mini-helicopters,” […] hoping that might help its friends at the Los Angeles Police Department avoid a public relations disaster like the one that had forced their department to give away its high-tech surveillance toys. 
THESE DAYS (DEC. 2019)
Do you think the situation changed for the better? Did we learn from our mistakes? Did we fight for our rights? Not enough.
In a very recent article from Vice written by Joseph Vox, exposed data shows where police departments fly their Drones. Dronesense, which sells a platform for controlling drones to police, left customer data including flight plans exposed. So today, we do not only allow to be monitored and controlled, but we are also exposed to the risk of getting our data stolen and misused. Here a significant extract:
When drones were first being incorporated into American airspace, there was much controversy about law enforcement use, with groups like the ACLU and Electronic Privacy Information Center saying that new privacy laws were necessary before their widespread adoption. Several towns and cities put temporary moratoriums on drone use by government actors, but largely the controversy around their use has died down, and police drones have quietly proliferated around the country. According to the Center for the Study of the Drone at Bard College, at least 599 law enforcement agencies in the U.S. had drones as of 2018.
It’s striking to notice how technology evolved and spread so rapidly over time. What we thought at that time was far away and too futuristic, it turned out to be an accessible reality, almost a commodity in the case of drones, now even available to the public, and not just to the police.
When we look at Google Trends, we clearly see that since 2006 the hype and interest related to the keyword “drones” significantly increased over time.
Also interesting to notice, from a global perspective, that France is mentioned as the top country for the interest. Terrorist attacks in recent years might have played a role in this sense.
Cameras are everywhere. Being offline means being cut off from society. The dystopian world many envisioned in the past year, became already a reality. Perhaps, the best way to control this is more to educate young generations and re-introduce an updated version of civic education in schools, rather than to regulate or, even worst, to prohibit. What do you think?
Original “old article” source: https://www.punto-informatico.it/robot-anticrimine-volano-sopra-los-angeles/ [dated June 21nd 2006]
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