Tracking: Drones And The Law

Armed drones abroad and autonomous commercial and law enforcement aircraft at home are entangled in ever-changing legal issues. Here is Fast Company‘s look at the evolving legal aspects, and what they mean for the future.

Tracking: Drones And The Law

1:05 p.m., 06/14/2013


Drones Coming To Greek-Turkish Border

Frontex, the European Union’s border agency, is reportedly seeking to purchase a dual-use manned/unmanned aerial vehicle to patrol the Greco-Turkish border. The proposed vehicles could either operate with a human pilot or fly via remote operator. From civil liberties organization Statewatch:

In January, Frontex signed a €118,000 contract with the Austrian firm Scotty Group, and for two weeks during July the company and unknown subcontractors will provide an optionally-piloted aircraft and accompanying ground station as part of Frontex’s “Aerial Border Surveillance Trial 2013”, which will take place as part of Joint Operation Poseidon Land. Poseidon Land has been ongoing at the Greek-Turkish border since 2006, and the agency’s 2013 work programme allocates €6 million to the land portion of the €13.2 million “Poseidon Programme”.

11:00 a.m., 06/04/2013

An API For Military Drone Strikes

Application Programming Interfaces (APIs) are tools that, among other things, let websites and apps include information from outside content partners. Josh Begley, a 28-year-old New York University student, just unveiled Dronestream–an API which lets developers analyze, sort, and parse data on all reported U.S. drone attacks in Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia. “With a simple browser request, designers and developers can build data visualizations about covert war,” Begley says on his website.

Data for the Dronestream comes from the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, whose military UAV documentation efforts were discussed further down this tracker. In an interview with David Axe of Wired‘s Danger Room, Begley discussed a few trial programs he came up with using data from the API. These included a search function for drone fatalities and another which “assembles every covert drone attack on a site, hides them behind numbered blank tiles, and lets you filter through the various years and countries where these attacks happened.”

12:15 p.m., 05/31/2013


U.N.: Don’t Build Killer Robots!

Christof Heyns, the United Nations’ special rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary, or arbitrary executions and a noted critic of military drone programs, has made an unusual request to the world’s militaries: Don’t build killer robots.

In a meeting with the Human Rights Council in Geneva, Heyns called for a special conference on autonomous, independent robots–whether on land, in sea, or in the air–that possess the deliberate ability to select and kill targets without human supervision. The United States, Great Britain, Israel, and South Korea are all working on algorithms and autonomous robots that are widely considered to be predecessors to actual killer robot prototypes.

“My concern is that we may find ourselves on the other side of a line, and then it is very difficult to go back,” Heyns told Nick Cumming-Bruce of the New York Times. These systems are commonly referred to as “lethal autonomous robotics” in academic and military literature.

1:30 p.m., 05/29/2013

Texas Banning (Most) UAV Use

Texas is gearing up to become the first state in the nation to ban most recreational and commercial UAV use. A new bill (PDF) would ban the private use of drones that photograph individuals or private property “with the intent to conduct surveillance.” Most popular retail UAVs such as the AR.Parrot include camera options.


According to Ars Technica’s Joe Mullin, who is tracking the story, the restrictive Texan bill passed the state’s legislature and is now awaiting signing by Gov. Rick Perry. The bill gives police the authority to fine drone owners $500 if their quadrocopters are used for photographing someone else’s property; the fine can be waived if the photo or video is destroyed.

A number of loopholes, however, exist in the Texas UAV bill… And these indicate where lobbyists have been spending quality time with state lawmakers. Exemptions exist for images made “in connection with oil pipeline safety and rig protection,” aerial photographs by real estate agents of property for sale, and use by law enforcement. An additional provision in the bill gives wide latitude for surveillance drone use within 25 miles of the U.S.-Mexico border.

[Image: Flickr user Quadrocopter]

U.S. Drone Strikes In Pakistan Taper Off

Over in a long New York Times piece by Declan Walsh and Ismail Khan on the drone assassination of a Pakistani Taliban leader on Wednesday, May 29, the reporters hid something interesting deep in the story’s depths: The number of fatal U.S. drone attacks in Pakistan sharply declined in 2013.

According to the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, a left-leaning London group which monitors U.S. drone strikes, there have only been 13 drone attacks within Pakistan in 2013. By comparison, the CIA carried out about 360 drone strikes within Pakistan alone since 2004.


American UAV attacks on Pakistani terrorist targets have been one of the major issues of Pakistan’s elections, which just (coincidentally or not) ended.

[Image: Flickr user Swamibu]

12:15 p.m., 05/29/2013

Why Military Drones Use Old Software

The Navy’s MQ-4C drone, a sophisticated unmanned vehicle which can spend 24 hours in the air, runs on Windows XP. But that will change in a short period of time: The MQ-4C, which is still in testing, is switching to… Windows 7. sUAS News’s Gary Mortimer reports that the drone, one of the Navy’s latest, will be upgraded to Windows 7. Changing the operating system on the 47-foot-long unmanned aircraft will cost approximately $15.3 million, with work being done by Northrop Grumman.

So why is one of the world’s most sophisticated aircraft using a operating system that’s currently being phased out of the private sector… and using that to replace even older software? The answer has to do with the extended nature of military contracts and the intricate bureaucratic relationships between the Pentagon and contractors. Due to the long periods of time over which contracts and proposals are fulfilled, older versions of operating systems tend to be adopted by the government for years longer than they do in the private sector. The same goes for the military.


However, that is likely for the best–a military UAV running a newly released, still-somewhat buggy operating system isn’t the most reassuring idea.

11:30 a.m., 05/24/2013

Mapping American Drone Strikes

There’s a reason why maps and infographics are so popular in journalism–they make complicated, macro-level topics easy to understand. These topics include America’s sprawling drone warfare program. Writing over in Co.Exist, Zak Stone analyzed a map of American drone strikes assembled by Bloomberg Businessweek. The map is described by Bloomberg Businessweek as the first ever “comprehensive compilation of all known lethal U.S. drone attacks.”

To date, more than 3,000 deaths from the U.S. drone program worldwide are on the public record. This count does not include some attacks conducted in remote areas where they were no deaths. It is important to note that the casualty count includes both individuals targeted by the United States and civilians with the bad luck to be in the area.

The prevalence of drone warfare in American military thinking in the 21st century, along with the unclear oversight and parameters of military/intelligence UAV policy, are creating a sea of legal questions legislators are trying to untangle.


6:15 p.m., 05/23/2013

Obama’s Drone Policy Speech

In a historic sea change, President Barack Obama redefined the United States’ military drone policy and set new parameters for the use of unmanned armed aircraft abroad. Bluntly put, limits were placed on the country’s sprawling drone warfare program. Responsibility for most drone attacks will shift from the CIA to the Pentagon, where a somewhat more public level of checks and balances will change the trajectory and timbre of America’s drone warfare efforts.

However, one thing was surprising about Obama’s remarks. For all of the CIA’s massive role in American drone warfare, President Obama did not mention the intelligence agency at all. New York Times reporter Mark Mazetti, whose The Way of the Knife is the best book written yet on the domestic drone program, succinctly summed it up:

It is telling that the President did not mention the C.I.A. at all. It seems quite certain that past operations in Pakistan, Yemen and elsewhere are not going to be declassified anytime soon.

Also, moving operations from the C.I.A. to the Pentagon does not automatically mean that the strikes will be publicly discussed. The Pentagon is carrying out a secret drone program in Yemen right now, and it is very difficult to get information about those operations.

President Obama also floated the possibility of a “Drone Court” in his speech which would oversee legal questions related to America’s military drone program in a secretive, Star Chamber-like manner. The text of the President’s speech is available here.

[Image: Wikimedia user Calips]