The Drone Census

No one, including federal airspace czars, seems to know with any authority just how many drones are flying around domestic airspace. The Federal Aviation Administration has prophesied that there could be upwards of 30,000 drones in the air by 2030, but lists of which government players are flying UAVs at present vary considerably.

So we’re counting the drones. All of them. And you’re going to help.

The Drone Census 2013-2014 is a joint initiative between Motherboard and MuckRock. Together, we’re uncovering precisely which government agencies across the country are using drones, the various purposes for which they're flown, and whether appropriate safeguards are in place to address privacy concerns.

MuckRock started the Drone Census last year in partnership with the Electronic Frontier Foundation. In our first round, we asked more than 350 government agencies across the country for details of their drone use, or lack thereof. With help from more than 100 tip submissions, MuckRock uncovered new details of the Seattle drone scandal, Maine State Police's "toy" UAV purchase sans FAA oversight and Georgia Tech's grandiose plan to fly drones at football games.

The second iteration of the Drone Census is bigger, more exhaustive and even higher-flying. We intend to (literally) write the book on domestic drones. Watch this space and the Motherboard site over the coming weeks for updates and analysis on who has drones, what they're doing with them and whether privacy concerns are being taken into account. And tell us where to look for them by submitting government agency tips at the bottom of this page.

What we've found so far

Documents continue to pour in from agencies across the country, and we're still submitting requests based on your tips and leads. But already, we've outlined the previously unknown history of the FBI's UAV program (plus the Bureau's difficulty counting its drones), found one drone purchased by police in Brunswick, Ga. with federal grants but sans FAA authorization, and pressed NYPD for details of its drone designs. And we're still digging!

All articles to date:

     Introducing the Motherboard-MuckRock Drone Census || The Drone Census flies again

     The Feds Have No Idea Who's Flying Drones || Read the documents

     What’s in a Drone?

     The NYPD Wants to Fly Spy Drones Over the City, But Refuses to Talk About It || Read the documents

     Eighteen Years After First Experiments, FBI Makes New Push to Deploy Drones Across US || Read the documents

     Revealed: The FBI's Internal Guidelines for Warrantless Drone Surveillance || Read the documents

     FBI Finally Releases Some (Heavily-Redacted) Drone Documents || Read the documents

     Syracuse, Home to an Air Force Drone Squadron, Banned Drones

     The FAA's Selection of Six Drone Test Sites Comes a Year Late

     The FBI Doesn't Know How Many Drones It Has, Or Who's Allowed to Fly Them || Read the documents

     The Department of Defense Can't Find Any of Its Drone Crash Data || Read the documents

     Joining a Handful of Other Cities, Lincoln, Nebraska Bans Police Drones || Read the documents

     Police in Virginia Want Spy Blimps to Protect Ports || Read the documents

     The FBI Won't Talk About the Drones Everyone Knows It Has || Read the documents

     The FBI Accidentally Told Us It Had Three Drones As of 2010 || Read the documents

     The Seattle Police Dept Said It Would Get Rid of Its Drones. It Hasn't. || Read the documents

Articles from the first round of the Drone Census can be found here.

Tell us where to look

Here’s where you come in. As part of the first Drone Census push, MuckRock put out an open call: where do you want us to poke around for drones? More than 100 people submitted government agencies that piqued their curiosity and hunches. And it paid off. Some of our most fascinating scoops and bizarre findings came from these crowdsourced leads, so we’re doing it again.

Fill out to the request form below to join the investigation and submit your local police department, emergency response office, university or dogcatcher to the Drone Census. The weirder the query and longer the shot, the better, as far as we’re concerned. If you're interested in reading the actual request we'll send to your agency of interest, we've printed it below the form.

Request text

Please note that the following is a draft of the requests that will be filed with agencies. Exact wording will be automatically customized for each state and local jurisdiction, and the request body is subject to revisions.

All documents created from January 2005 to the date this request is processed related to the agency's use of aerial drones, unmanned aerials (UAs), unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), and/or unmanned aerial systems (UASs)(hereinafter “drones”).

Please search specifically for the below document categories, and respond to each of the categories and items:

1) Acquisition documents:

i) requests for proposals (RFPs), proposals/quotes submitted by vendors, contracts, leases, budget requests, project/equipment budgets, cost allocations or reimbursements for the purchase of drone equipment;

ii) Grant applications and award letters for drone equipment purchases;

iii) Insurance contracts for all drone equipment;

iv) Communications (including electronic communications) between the agency head or agency quartermaster (or individual responsible for equipment purchases and maintenance) and drone vendors, manufacturers or retailers;

v) Communications (including electronic communications) between the agency head and agency quartermaster (or individual responsible for equipment purchases and maintenance) regarding acquisition, lease or use of drone equipment;

vi) Communications (including electronic communications) between the agency head and the governor, mayor and city/town manager regarding the acquisition of drones;

vii) Applications (including all components and support documentation) for Certificates of Waiver/Authorization (COA) from the Federal Aviation Administration, as well as COA grant notifications and final agreement;

2) Equipment logs:

i) Inventories/logs/lists/databases of all drones owned, leased or operated by or for the agency;

ii) Maintenance logs for all drones owned, leased or otherwise operated by or for the agency;

3) Policy documents:

i) Policies, guidelines, protocols, manuals and/or instructions on the use/operation of drones and usage of data, images and video obtained from drone flights;

ii) Communications from the agency head, quartermaster (or individual responsible for overseeing equipment purchases and maintenance) on approved uses for drones;

iii) Memorandums of understanding (MOUs), memorandums of agreement (MOAs) or any other agreements or contracts with other government agencies, private corporations, organizations or individuals to share drone equipment, data, images or video or to operate drones on behalf of the agency;

4) Training documents:

i) Curriculum used to train drone operators and observers;

ii) Training log for all drone operators and observers;

iii) Certifications of training completion for all drone operators and observers;

iv) Contracts, purchase orders, budget requests or reimbursement orders for training sessions for all drone operators and observers;

5) Usage documents:

i) Flight logs for all drone flights, including training flights;

ii) Flight logs transmitted to the Federal Aviation Administration pursuant to Certificate of Waiver/Authorization (COA) requirements;

iii) Reprimands relating to drones, including misuse of equipment and failure to properly maintain equipment.