Most talk around the Federal Aviation Administration throttling to fully integrate unmanned aerial vehicles into U.S. airspace by 2015 has taken to breathless alarmism. I won’t even begin to except myself, here – the accidental highs and lows of being watched do pose legitimate threats to some of our most basic rights, not least the desire to just be left the hell alone. But I also think it’s worthwhile noting what some of a still limited number of drones currently cruising domestic airspace have their sights set on. As far as we can (maybe) tell? Cows.
I don’t say this to bludgeon that worn line about how we mere mortals are really just a big, lumbering herd of helpless shit boxes being driven, cud masticating and oblivious, to slaughter. While that’s maybe somewhat true, I’m talking cattle, baby – the untold hundreds of thousands (millions, more likely) of smelly, rugged ungulates trampling around the sprawling feedlots, farms and dairies that patchwork the American heartland.
When it comes to today’s domestic drones, here’s the beef.
Last June, for one, a SWAT team in Grand Forks, North Dakota, scrambled a Department of Homeland Security Predator spy drone when police had trouble apprehending Rodney Brossart, a staunch sovereignist who’d been disputing with authorities over the rightful ownership of a half-dozen cows that grazed onto his farm. When the cops finally descended onto Brossart’s property their repeated taserings were apparently no match for the cattle crusader, who’d armed himself and his family and threatened to kill any law who dared encroach further. The ranchers then receded into their compound, at which point the SWAT team relied on the DHS drone – which an attorney for the state argues was launched “only after warrants were issued” – to pinpoint the Brossart’s locations before their eventual capture.
The 16-hour standoff is the first known use of a Predator to arrest domestic civilians.
And now there are reports that just last week Nebraska’s congressional delegation sent a joint letter to the head of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency criticizing its drone flights that take photos of unsuspecting livestock farms.
The EPA officials in Region 7, which covers Nebraska, Iowa, Missouri and Kansas, say drones are a cost-effective – and totally legal – approach to monitoring for potential runoff contamination into streams. Here’s part of the agency’s written response to questions of legality posed by the Omaha World-Herald: "Courts, including the Supreme Court, have found similar types of flights to be legal (for example to take aerial photographs of a chemical manufacturing facility) and EPA would use such flights in appropriate instances to protect people and the environment from violations of the Clean Water Act."
Sen. Mike Johanns (R-Neb.), a former U.S. agriculture secretary, isn’t buying it. He told the World-Herald that he doubts the EPA has congressional approval to be an all-seeing eye in he sky. “They are just way on the outer limits of any authority they’ve been granted,” Johanns said. And as Adrian Smith (R-Neb.), co-chair with the Modern Agricultural and Congressional Rural caucuses, explained to The New American, “landowners deserve legitimate justification given the sensitivity of the information gathered by flyovers.”
The urge, here, is to parse this all out through the prisms of privacy, security, and public safety, and to be all doom ‘n gloom about it. But no. Not today. For the sake of argument, and to put a check on some of that breathless alarmism, why not try and see it the other way? Maybe the EPA, however imperfect its dronings are (the agency has staged seven flights in Iowa, nine in Nebraska, and maintains all its aircraft at ceilings of 1,200 – 1,500 feet) is onto something. If anything, it’s your classic Triple D justification: Use robots for any and all tasks that are dirty, dangerous, or dull. Turns out there’s still a whole lot of that sort of work. Here, then, are just a few of the ways some folks argue domestic drones can be used for something like “good.”
Read the rest over at Motherboard.