Tag Archives: UAV

Loss of drone program a momentum shift for the CIA

The Daily Beast reports that the CIA’s drone operations are being shifted to military control. That doesn’t so much mean the CIA is losing the ability to launch strikes with the remotely piloted aircraft, but that they will have to liase with the Pentagon to do so.

The move is reportedly part of a larger shift in the administration to reign in and centralize the nation’s ability to launch targeted strikes across the globe.

The policy shift is part of a larger White House initiative known internally as “institutionalization,” an effort to set clear standards and procedures for lethal operations. More than a year in the works, the interagency process has been driven and led by John Brennan, who until he became CIA director earlier this month was Obama’s chief counterterrorism adviser. Brennan, who has presided over the administration’s drone program from almost day one of Obama’s presidency, has grown uncomfortable with the ad hoc and sometimes shifting rules that have governed it.

 Cutting back on the CIA’s lethal operations is a shift in an agency culture that has, in the years since 9/11, seemed to be increasingly paramilitary in nature. Ironically, the newly-appointed director of the CIA, John Brennan, was historically the mastermind of the Obama administration’s counterterrorism policy – a policy that relied heavily on drones.

After the approval process for Brennan’s job as CIA director was rife with Congressional complaints about the lacking transparency of the administration’s use of drones, the executive branch seems to have received the message. With all American drone use coming out of the Pentagon, which falls under military and international law, the process for each strike will be uniform, if not more transparent.

The CIA, for its part, seems to be headed back into the shadows, serving as more of an ear and less of a fist for the American national security apparatus.

Moreover, Brennan has publicly stated that he would like to see the CIA move away from the kinds of paramilitary operations it began after the September 11 attacks, and return to its more traditional role of gathering and analyzing intelligence.

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Did the Air Force violate Freedom of Information law when it took down drone strike reports?

An armed British Reaper UAV taxis on the runway at Kandahar Airfield in Afghanistan.

An armed British Reaper UAV taxis on the runway at Kandahar Airfield in Afghanistan. Photo via Flickr.

The AirForce Times reported Friday that the U.S. Air Force has stopped publishing data on weapons releases from Remotely Piloted Aircraft – i.e. drone strikes – in their monthly activity reports on Afghanistan operations.

Last October, Air Force Central Command started tallying weapons releases from RPAs, broken down into monthly updates. At the time, AFCENT spokeswoman Capt. Kim Bender said the numbers would be put out every month as part of a service effort to “provide more detailed information on RPA ops in Afghanistan.”

The Air Force maintained that policy for the statistics reports for November, December and January. But the February numbers, released March 7, contained empty space where the box of RPA statistics had previously been.

Additionally, monthly reports hosted on the Air Force website have had the RPA data removed — and recently.

In other words, not only did the Air Force stop publishing their numbers on drone strikes, but they actively removed that data from previously published reports. The information is no longer available to the public, and the military made a distinct effort to remove it from the public domain. But under federal laws, there are very clear rules around what information can be public and what can be private.

Since the Freedom of Information Act came into effect July 5, 1967, information held by the government has been publicly available by default. As the FOIA website puts it:

Enacted in 1966, and taking effect on July 5, 1967, the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) provides that any person has a right, enforceable in court, to obtain access to federal agency records, except to the extent that such records (or portions of them) are protected from public disclosure by one of nine exemptions or by one of three special law enforcement record exclusions.

The Department of Defense, on their FOIA page, lays out the nine exemptions. Essentially, information that is exempt from public disclosure must be classified, pose a threat to national or operational security or invade the personal privacy of personnel, among other things. The law is very specific on these points, as they are the only reasons for which the government can withhold information from its people.

Granted, not all government information is readily accessible or published. The point of this law is not to burden agencies with the task of publicizing every action they take, but it is to make it possible for citizens to get information about their government, enhancing transparency and accountability. So while public officials don’t need to post their every action online, they are obligated to provide information when it is requested of them unless it falls under a specific exemption. Government information is public by default.

So when the Air Force took down the data on drone strikes and said – as the Air Force Times reports – “the data disproportionately focused on RPA kinetic events,” it was removing data from the public record because it didn’t look good, not because it was exempt from release. The full statement seems to suggest the data was misleading because it reported only instances in which a drone used weapons and not the far more common instances in which drones were used only for surveillance.

“A determination found the data disproportionately focused on RPA kinetic events,” CENTCOM said in the statement. “A variety of multi-role platforms provide ground commanders in Afghanistan with close air support capabilities, and it was determined that presenting the weapons release data as a whole better reflects the airpower provided in support of Operation Enduring Freedom. Kinetic events involving RPAs are the exception, with only about 3 percent of all RPA sorties over Afghanistan involving kinetic events.”

The Air Force could have added the total monthly number of RPA [Remotely Piloted Aircraft] sorties [missions] to their report, which would have brought the number of kinetic events [drone strikes] into proportion with the total drone activity in Afghanistan. Perhaps then the public would be able to see that while these aircraft are doing damage and taking lives, they are also doing a lot of work collecting intelligence that benefits – and perhaps saves the lives of – troops on the ground. This would have addressed the Air Force’s concern that the data was disproportionately focused on offensive strikes and at the same time increased the transparency of the operations.

Instead, the Air Force omitted the number from their reporting and then went back into their old reports and stripped the already public numbers from there too, despite the fact that the information clearly was not protected under any of the FOIA exemptions. It is possible that the Air Force would release those numbers again in the face of a FOIA request, but the fact that they made the effort to actively remove already available data from the public domain seems to me a violation of the spirit of the Freedom of Information Act, if not its letter.

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Feds investigating UAV incident over New York

A Boeing 777-200, the same model of plane involved in the incident over New York.

A Boeing 777-200, the same model of plane involved in the incident over New York.

Federal authorities are investigating what could have been one of the first midair collisions between a manned aircraft and an unmanned “drone” over American soil. At around 1:15 p.m. today, the pilot of Alitalia flight 608 from Rome, Italy to John F. Kennedy airport in New York reported seeing a black, unmanned quadrocopter at an altitude of about 1,750 feet, according to the FBI, which is seeking public help to locate the vehicle’s operator.

The FBI report says the vehicle was about three miles from JFK’s runway, which puts it about a mile north of the western tip of Long Beach Island.

“The unnamed aircraft was described as black in color and no more than three feet wide with four propellers,” the FBI said in a release about the incident. Such quadrocopters are popular among hobbyists for their stability and maneuverability, but according to a Reuters report (which described the incident as taking place at a slightly lower altitude farther from the airport),

Under FAA safe operating rules, model aircraft should be flown no higher than 400 feet above ground and no closer to an airport than 3 miles, unless airport authorities have been notified.

The Reuters report quoted FAA spokesman Jim Peters as saying the pilot was able to land the Boeing safely without having to take evasive action.

Drone use over the U.S. has been a contentious issue of late – lawmakers have mandated a makeover in FAA regulations for the aircraft, but FAA brass and some state and local officials have privacy concerns about such use. The FAA is behind schedule on their mandated timeline for drone integration, which would install a regulatory structure around the use of unmanned aircraft over 400 feet and for commercial purposes.

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Experts see promise in domestic drone use, privacy concerns delay rollout

A Yamaha RMAX unmanned helicopter in Japan, where such vehicles have been used increasingly for crop spraying over the past 20 years. Flickr user timtak.

A Yamaha RMAX unmanned helicopter in Japan, where such vehicles have been used increasingly for crop spraying over the past 20 years. Flickr user timtak.

More than a year after President Obama signed legislation that will allow drones to fly over American soil, regulators are far behind schedule and proponents are eager to develop what they say could be vital to American high-tech manufacturing and other industries.

Unmanned Aerial Vehicles, popularly known as “drones,” have been a controversial topic since they joined the American military arsenal, but a different set of factors is at play on the issue of domestic use. As civil liberties advocates, lawmakers and Federal Aviation Administration officials voice privacy concerns, others are touting the benefits the robotic aircraft could hold for uses in a wide variety of applications such as freight shipping, agriculture and disaster management.

Vince Ambrosia, who helped develop a NASA program that used drones to monitor forest fires over the western United States, said government agencies and private companies alike have seen the value the aircraft could provide. It’s just a matter of developing a logistical, regulatory and ethical framework around their use.

“This is just going to explode,” he said. “This is going to be the next big technology breakthrough. The technology is already in place, it’s just a matter of that framework allowing the use of those platforms.”

Currently, the FAA uses a Certificate of Authorization (COA) system, through which every unmanned aircraft flown over the U.S. must be individually approved for operation (this does not apply to hobbyists using small recreational UAVs). According to a Feb. 15, 2013 report from the Government Accountability Office, the FAA has issued 1,428 Certificates of Authorization since Jan. 2007. However, FAA reports released to the Electronic Frontier Foundation under a Freedom of Information Act request yielded only a few hundred certificates, so a comprehensive list of the various drone authorizations in the U.S. remains elusive.

Chris Mailey, vice president of knowledge resources at Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International (AUVSI), a Virginia-based non-profit advocacy group, said the FAA does not yet give Certificates of Authorization for commercial drone use.

“FAA does the COA process,” he said, “and they don’t approve commercial COAs, so either you have to be a government agency or research institution in order to get a COA.”

Last year’s legislation, the FAA Modernization and Reform Act, was designed to change that. The bill, signed into law Feb. 15, 2012, required officials lay out the framework for the integration of drones into the National Airspace System, which regulates all air traffic over the U.S. The first step in this process mandated that the FAA designate six test ranges in American airspace within six months of the bill signing to “test and operate unmanned aircraft systems.” By Sept. 30, 2015, according to the legislation, drones should be fully integrated into American airspace.

But more than a year later, the FAA has not named the test areas. This is due in part to a delay in the process explained by a Nov. 1, 2012 letter from acting FAA administrator Michael Huerta to Congress.

“Our target was to have the six test sites named by the end of 2012,” he wrote. “However, increasing the use of UAS [Unmanned Aerial Systems] in our airspace also raises privacy issues, and these issues will need to be addressed as unmanned aircraft are safely integrated.”

On Feb. 14, 2013, six months after the initial deadline passed, the FAA began soliciting proposals for the test sites.

The FAA release announcing the solicitation did not clarify if the administration had taken any steps to address or study privacy issues since the Nov. 1 letter, but solicited public input on the subject.

“The FAA’s proposed privacy approach emphasizes transparency, public engagement and compliance with existing law,” it reads.

Despite these delays, and having missed their first deadline, FAA officials maintain that they can make the Sept. 2015 deadline.

“The FAA expects to meet all the mandates in the 2012 reauthorization,” spokeswoman Alison Duquette said in an email. She did not address questions about the FAA’s internal deliberations about privacy concerns.

The House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure is scheduled to meet with the FAA next week about the issue, but the purpose of the meeting is unclear. Committee spokesman Justin Harclerode failed to respond to multiple requests for comment.

Washington isn’t the only place where privacy concerns have kept drones grounded. In Virginia, lawmakers, also citing privacy concerns, passed legislation that will ban drones over the state for two years if Gov. Bob McDonnell signs it into law. Other states are considering similar legislation.

Proponents of the unmanned vehicles, which can range from small, low-flying quadrocopters to jet-powered planes with wingspans up to 116 feet, say the privacy issue is an important one, but shouldn’t keep drones out of American skies forever.

Missy Cummings, an MIT professor working with the Navy on an unmanned rescue helicopter, says privacy issues are nothing new.

“Your neighbor has been able to look into your house with high-powered zoom lenses for a long time,” she said. Unmanned aircraft, while they are equipped with high-powered optics, aren’t able to see any more than a similarly positioned human eye.

“I work a lot with police forces,” Cummings said. “You know whatever we’ve got going on with police helicopters, do you think they’re looking maybe not where they should? Yeah, they are.”

Drones are no different, she said.

While lawmakers and regulators struggle with these issues, a growing number of agencies and businesses are preparing to capitalize on the possibilities afforded by relatively cheap, automated flight.

“The thing about the big brother state is – and that’s the drumbeat I keep trying to get out there – is our focus is on drones as spy vehicles,” Cummings said. “And all this development is going on under the radar, you know drones as cargo planes, drones as rescue helicopters.”

The oft-mentioned fear of drone use over the U.S. is that of the Orwellian surveillance state, but Mailey of AUVSI said the law enforcement market is likely to be a small slice of a much larger pie.

The real money, he said, is in agriculture. Crop dusting and other aerial spray methods are very expensive, he said, largely because manned planes and helicopters must carry a pilot in them. The added weight ups fuel costs, and the cost of hiring a trained pilot makes crop dusting with piloted vehicles expensive and often inefficient, he said.

“The big sign we see is Japan,” he said. “What’s been happening in Japan in the last 20 years has been pretty telling.”

In Japan in 2011, 95 percent of aerial spraying was done with unmanned helicopters, according to Yamaha, the manufacturer of one such vehicle. In 1995, unmanned craft did just 8 percent of Japan’s crop spraying.

Beyond agriculture, Mailey said, energy companies are interested in using drones to monitor oil and gas pipelines that are expensive and difficult to monitor on the ground. Other proposed uses include wildlife monitoring, freight transport and even taco delivery. Essentially, Mailey said, it all boils down to economics.

“In the commercial world,” he said, “return on investment is going to be the big driver [of UAV markets].” If companies can get the same result for a lower cost and less risk, they’ll jump for the opportunity.

Mailey holds out hope that the FAA might meet it’s 2015 deadline, while Cummings says it likely won’t happen, but both agree that once the regulatory issues are figured out, drones will help companies and public agencies bring their costs down and perform new tasks manned aircraft couldn’t.

“By 2020,” Mailey said, “I expect the commercial [UAV] market in the U.S. to be bigger than the defense market.”

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