For all we know, it could be happening right now—high above the pine line a robot hovers, looking down. On suspicions that at-large vigilante cop Christopher Dorner is holed up east of Los Angeles in the rugged and snowy San Bernardino Mountains, law enforcement officials have apparently taken to aerial spy drones, in addition to ramping up drone surveillance along the Mexico border, to find the man.
Word of the move broke this weekend in a report in the Express. An unnamed senior police source told the British outlet that certain drone-ready thermal-imaging capabilities may offer the only hope for pinpointing Dorner, who's wanted in connection to the recent shooting deaths of a police officer in Riverside and of a former police chief's daughter and fiancé. "On the ground, it's like looking for a needle in a haystack," the official added. On Saturday, the report continues, as some 125 officers canvassed Big Bear Lake for the "Rambo-style" Naval reservist and former Los Angeles cop, "it was revealed that Dorner has become the first human target for remotely-controlled airborne drones on US soil."
And just like that, breathless tweeting and subthread chatter alike were off to the races. You know that cop killer Dorner? He's the first person ever to be tracked by drones on American soil. It was a provocative, if dire, claim. And it still is. But is it true?
If in fact drones are being used here, it's hard to say what kind. The Express article makes no mention as to what sort of spy bird authorities are relying on to survey tracts of wilderness for a lone human with survivalist training (and who's promising to wage asymmetrical warfare on the police, to boot). When he was asked whether unmanned systems had already taken to the skies to sniff out Dorner, Riverside Police Chief Sergio Diaz said the search team is "using all the tools" at its disposal.
One could imagine those tools being quad- or hexacopters—small-fry drones that are far, far cheaper and stealthier than manned helicopters that can be outfitted with precision HD imagers (or guns). Yet even as the Federal Aviation Administration hastens approvals for these sorts of drone flights by local and federal agencies, using minidrones for manhunts is still quite uncommon. The tech is almost over early-adopter phase, but not quite. So if indeed Dorner's got the buzz of minidrones to worry about, then yes, he's very well one of the first humans, if not the first, on US soil to warrant scrambling small-scale emergency drones.
If we're talking big Predator or Reaper drones—the same systems used throughout the Middle East and the Horn of Africa to spy on and kill suspected terrorists—hunting for Dorner, no, even that isn't precedent setting.