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! ## 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? Hundreds of 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. Your city not one of the ones that we've filed with yet? Click on a request, click "Clone", and then type in the place and agency you'd like to file with — it's that simply.
Over the course of the 23 thousand (and counting!) records requests we’ve filed, MuckRock has seen all sorts of responses. While the overwhelming majority of which have been polite and professional, there are a few that … well, weren’t. But nothing tops this response from a Massachusetts police department, which stands out as the closest we’ve gotten to a middle finger by fax.
A breach-of-contract squabble has spiraled into broader allegations of misconduct against a drone manufacturer with millions in US military contracts. A motion filed last week in Florida civil court claims that Prioria Robotics misrepresented specs for its flagship “microdrone,” and also sold refurbished units to the Army as if they were new.
Police in Los Angeles are playing the long game when it comes to drones. More than a year after the Los Angeles Police Department received two unmanned aerial vehicles, the units remain under lock and key awaiting clear policies on how they’ll be used in operations.
An Army contractor lost track of at least four surveillance drone systems during the Afghanistan drawdown, a recent audit report uncovered. Sloppy paperwork allowed the drones, worth $500k apiece, to fall through bureaucratic cracks.
Initial goals for border drones were “unattainable”, the senior aviation official for Homeland Security told a congressional committee on Tuesday. Responding to ongoing pressure from auditors, DHS acknowledged that it must provide hard evidence that drones are the most efficient tool for border security.
It’s been two and a half years since I filed my first request to the NYPD for documents on drones. During that time, two mayors and two police commissioners have made public statements on drones in law enforcement. But the police department continues to fight to keep secret every shred of paper that it has on the subject.
Since late 2012, the Department of Homeland Security has been evaluating small drones for public safety applications. One of the sites for the testing program is an urban obstacle course dubbed “Liberty City.”
Ahead of the Boston Marathon on Monday, city officials were adamant: no drones along the route. Such a ban isn’t unprecedented, but the plan for keeping drones out of marathoners’ faces highlights the difficulty of spotting the damn things, much less taking them out. Naturally, the plan flirted with net guns.
While it might seem unlikely that Bob Belcher, the eponymous lovable loser voiced by H. Jon Benjamin on FOX’s Bob’s Burgers, would have much advice to lend federal law enforcement, audit findings released last week by the Justice Department’s inspector general suggest otherwise — at least when it comes to drones and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF).
A report released this morning by the Justice Department’s inspector general highlighted “significant challenges” facing the FBI’s drone program. In particular, the report pointed to the skeleton crew of just two pilots authorized to fly FBI drones, both of whom are based out of the same office.
For three weeks in 2003, the Bureau of Immigration and Customs Enforcement evaluated the Predator drone as a tool for monitoring the border. Twelve years later, even as a scathing inspector general loudly questions the millions spent on border drones, records officials at ICE can’t puzzle out the news value in releasing reports from this early study.
The FBI commits to Obama standards around drone privacy and disclosure … while dodging a direct question
Despite repeatedly refusing to release privacy impact assessments regarding its drone us — which legally must be public by default — the Bureau claims to already be in line with the president’s standards, which include a public disclosure timeline and broad principles for protecting civil liberties.
The FBI has flown unmanned aerial vehicles since at least 2005, and has fought in court for the past year and change to divulge as little information about them as possible. While the Bureau and its privacy overseers have released hundreds of heavily redacted pages, they have seemingly conflicting answers as to whether one crucial set of legally-mandated privacy documents even exists at all.
Ask how many MQ-9 Reaper drones the US needs for pilot training, and the Air Force budget hawks charged with making that call have an exact figure at the ready: 52 unmanned aircraft, each at a sticker price north of $10 million and total operating cost upwards of $100 million over its lifetime. What sort of analysis did they preform to get at this specific number? According to recently released audit, none.
The Bureau of Customs and Border Protection piloted its first drone along the Arizona-Mexico border in the summer of 2004. This Monday, over ten years after it’s initial launch, Department of Homeland Security Inspector General John Roth went on C-SPAN to lay out the reasons he considers CBP drones “dubious achievers” despite more than $60 million per year in annual funding. Here’s what happened in-between.
Back in June, MuckRock submitted its third request for drone documents with the NYPD, drawing upon the now-overwhelming evidence that the department was openly exploring their opportunities to implement UAVs into their police work. But despite its public candor, the NYPD still insists that it cannot release any documents whatsoever - so we’re suing.
After months of stalling, the Federal Aviation Administration has at last released an updated list of waivers to fly drones in national airspace. New approvals include the ATF and Army Corps of Engineers, Michigan State Police and local cops in Mobile and Daytona Beach … plus the Florida Keys Mosquito Control District.
The FBI has had an eager eye on surveillance drones since first experimenting with remote control airplanes in 1995. But budget cuts nearly ended the Bureau’s unmanned machinations in 2010, and it took a dedicated push aimed at making drones “a tool the FBI cannot do without” to cement their place in the FBI’s surveillance toolkit.
Yesterday, police in San Jose issued a statement apologizing for failing to consult the public ahead of acquiring an unmanned aerial vehicle. Hours later, the department released additional documents showing the department considered itself immune from FAA regulation.
After two responses claiming no docs existed, the San Jose Police Department has finally dug out receipts and grant applications for its hazmat drone purchased in January 2014.
A month after receiving a grant to purchase a hazmat drone, San Jose Police Department replied that it had no documents pertaining to unmanned aerial vehicles.
At a city council committee meeting last month, the NYPD confirmed once again that staff are looking into surveillance drones. The department’s transparency officers are running out of reasons to stonewall requests for UAV documents.
More than a year after the mayor ordered Seattle police to box up their two drones, the department has finally handed them off to their counterparts in Los Angeles.
The Federal Aviation Administration is the sole gatekeeper for government agencies to operate drones in domestic airspace. But FAA lawyers and FOIA officers have repeatedly resisted releasing even basic documents around drone regulation.
Customs and Border Protection refuses to disclose what its drone was doing when it crashed near San Diego
CBP has finally released documents surrounding the crash of one of its Predator drones in the ocean off San Diego in January. Notably, CBP has redacted the precise mission its unmanned surveillance vehicle was conducting before it crashed.
Documents continue to flow in regarding the FBI’s use of unmanned aerial vehicles. Your generous support has ensured MuckRock can foot the transparency bill.
Last February, the mayor of Seattle shuttered his police department’s unmanned aerial vehicle program and ordered the return of its two units. But SPD’s Draganflyer X6 drones are still on the shelf.
The FBI meticulously redacts even basic information on its use of unmanned aerial vehicles, including past inventory and purchases. Four months into the court-ordered release process, we have our first hard number.
The FBI has been ordered to disclose thousands of pages on its use of unmanned aerial vehicles for surveillance. But more than 1,000 pages in, we still know next to nothing about its drone inventory, much less how they’re used.
Police in Newport News, Virginia are feeling slightly deflated. Last August, FEMA denied the department’s request for $240,000 to purchase a “tethered aerial surveillance balloon system” to patrol the Port of Hampton Roads.
After an “exhaustive search,” the Office of the Secretary of Defense insists it is unable to locate any database of military drone crashes. Trouble is, the Secretary told Congress last year that it compiled this exact data for the FAA.
The Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington have won a FOIA lawsuit against the FBI, which must release hundreds of pages on its domestic drone deployments over the coming weeks. The first release sketches a rough timeline of the Bureau’s drone fancy, offering fascinating leads for further digging for the Drone Census.
The Iowa Department of Public Safety has been looking into purchasing an umanned aerial vehicle since at least last May, documents released to MuckRock show. At the urging of the Iowa DPS Commissioner, the Division of Intelligence has explored various means of gaining access to a drone, from outright purchase to leasing to borrowing a unit from the FBI.
The Maine State Police spent just $300 to purchase an unmanned aerial vehicle in January. The small drone, marketed as a hobby plane, is controlled via smartphone or tablet application. While this model is not designed for law enforcement use, the department indicates it intends to use it in field operations.
The Ohio Army National Guard conducts training flights on surveillance UAVs (unmanned aerial vehicles) out of three sites in Springfield, Ravenna and Clinton County. A boilerplate memo from the National Guard Bureau outlines that drones may not target U.S. citizens during these training missions, but that incidental information collected in-flight may be retained and disseminated to other government agencies.
Drones have received considerable coverage recently - while this has brought unprecedented public debate on the use of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) as implements of war, a casualty of such intense focus has been a blurring of domestic and foreign drones and the issues surrounding them. In turn, recent developments regarding drones deployed on the homefront merit examination.
In the midst of Virginia’s proposed moratorium on law enforcement drones, the state emergency management agency has released documents outlining a rejected proposal to use unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) to monitor radiation. The documents also reveal that Virginia’s Army National Guard has drones in its inventory. But without authorization documents, it is unclear to what extent or purposes the UAVs can be flown.
The Canyon County Sheriff’s Office hopes to use a Draganflyer drone for aerial reconnaissance ranging from search-and-rescue operations to “active shooter situations,” according to documents released through the Drone Census.
With the unbelievable support and determination of our users, the 2012 Drone Census has uncovered unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) in use or development at dozens of government agencies ranging from universities and environmental regulators to national guard units and police departments.
29 pounds and seven feet long, the jet fuel-powered Shadowhawk unmanned helicopter not only dwarfs the UAVs of peer departments, but exceeds the weight limit set by the FAA. While the Texas Attorney General ordered MCSO to release its UAV policy to MuckRock, both the FAA and the sheriff refuse to disclose whether the department has an active drone certificate despite the weight rule.
The sheriff in Mesa County, CO is one of the few law enforcement agencies in the country authorized to use drones in the field, documents from the Mesa County Sheriff’s Office (MCSO) and the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) indicate.
Like many agencies, the San Diego County Sheriff’s office responded that they had no documents relating to drones. But in this case, MuckRock discovered there were responsive documents — which were only released by a different city.
Protestors opposed to the Alameda County Sheriff’s plan to obtain unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) held a press conference at Oakland City Hall on Thursday, Oct. 18 in coordination with the ACLU of Northern California and the Electronic Frontier Foundation. MuckRock had previously obtained documents related to Alameda’s proposed drone program.
The Seattle Police Department plans to expand its drone program over the next year with the purchase of two additional units and the training of additional officers, documents released to MuckRock indicate. The additional drones would cost SPD at least $150,000. But beyond conducting limited training exercises, SPD has never deployed the two drones it purchased in 2010 for $82,000. Furthermore, SPD has no clear policy outlining how drones can be deployed in the field.
The Miami-Dade Police Department’s three-year drone program has been a high-profile example of municipal law enforcement agencies’ swift embrace of drone technology.
Over a span of almost nine months, the Austin, TX police department pursued plans to lease an Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV), only to kill the program suddenly. Revealed in documents obtained as part of the Electronic Frontier Foundation and MuckRock’s Drone Census, we get an agency-eye view of the process required to go from conception to (almost) kickstarting a UAV program.
A San Francisco Police Department project proposal suggested that the department's Homeland Security Unit acquire a remotely piloted vehicle (RPV) equipped with video and infrared sensing capabilities.
Want to help watch the watchers? Suspect your local police department, college or other government entity has been playing around with unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV's), better known as drones? Help the Electronic Frontier Foundation and MuckRock with our national public records project: The 2012 U.S. Drone Census. Simply provide the contact information for the agency you want to know about, and we'll file the request on your behalf - free of charge.
Raytheon bought drone-related technical services from the University of Arizona for $5,000, according to documents released after a public records request. Its statement of work stipulates developing a tactical unmanned aerial vehicle for intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) missions capable of flying six hours with a maximum height of 10,000 feet.
Drone Watch sent this request to the Department of Agriculture, Agricultural Research Service of the United States of America
Shawn Musgrave sent this request to the Georgia Institute of Technology Police Department, Office of Emergency Preparedness of Georgia