Police in northern India have reportedly acquired pepper-spraying drones intended for use on protesters and others labeled as threats to public safety.
"They can be used to shower pepper powder on an unruly mob in case of any trouble," said Yashasvi Yadav, police superintendent of Lucknow, a major city in northern India, according to the Times of India.
Technology that allows remote-controlled crowd control is relatively new, but Yadav's strategy is part of a trend of governments and businesses dramatically expanding drone use despite warnings from skeptics who want stricter rules imposed on the devices.
"We can't as a world rush into utilizing this tech," Alli McCracken, national coordinator of Code Pink, an organization that opposes drones, told VICE News. "The police are already so militarized. It's a matter of privacy and safety."
Those concerns haven't stopped the United States and others from finding new jobs for unmanned flying vehicles. Surveillance drones are buzzing around the world, from the border in Texas to the waters between China and Japan. Armed drones drop bombs in Africa, Pakistan, and throughout the Middle East. Amazon wants drones to deliver packages ordered online. Realtors now use drones to provide aerial views of their properties.
Proposed rules issued recently by President Barack Obama to expand commercial drone flights throughout the US are now open to public comment. Obama also issued an executive order requiring federal agencies to respect citizens' civil liberties when they launch drones.
In June, the BBC reported on a new South African company selling "riot control copters" that could fire pepper spray capsules. It's not clear if the Indian police are using the same drones. The BBC said the company's first customer was a mining firm, suggesting the drones would be deployed against striking miners.
"I predict that we will see a whole new wave of UAVs emerging with payloads more unusual than Tasers, dart guns, and paintball guns," Guy Martin, editor of defenceWeb, a site that covers African defense and security news, told the BBC.
Yadav explained that the Lucknow police have already been using drones with cameras for surveillance of religious festivals. The leap to equipping the flying machines with pepper spray seemed natural, he said. In an interview with AFP, the police superintendent said he already tested them in a simulated riot.
"The results were brilliant. We have managed to work out how to use it to precisely target the mob in winds and congested areas," Yadav told AFP, adding that the drones cost almost $10,000 apiece. "Pepper is non-lethal but very effective in mob control. We can spray from different heights to have maximum results."
Amos Guiora, a University of Utah law professor who has advocated for special courts to rule on the legality of drone strikes, thought Yadev was being overly nonchalant. The decision to spray pepper gas on a mob is best made by someone who is present at the demonstration, not a pilot controlling the machine from a mile away, he said.
"I'm very much an advocate of hands-on decision making," Guiora told VICE News. "By hands-on, I mean a human being — as a human being, not some damn machine. Drone operators with feet up on their desk. That's what worries me."
Jay Stanley, a senior policy analyst at the ACLU, agreed. Imagine if drones, rather than police officers, had responded to the calls that resulted in high-profile shootings in Ferguson, Missouri, and elsewhere in recent years, he asked. Police made mistakes in the field. How might they have responded if they weren't even at the scene?
"When a human officer is not present, they just aren't able to judge the situation as easily," Stanley told VICE News. "There is a heightened risk of misuse and overuse of force. When law officers can use force from a distance, it becomes costless, riskless, cheap, and all too easy."
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