Why Gaston cops lost their ‘eye in the sky’

Gaston County Police officers were ecstatic when they unveiled the department’s shiny drone aircraft to the public in 2006.

Equipped with low-light and infrared cameras, the unmanned aerial vehicle known as the “CyberBug” was promised to deliver sweeping surveillance, tactical operational support during raids, extensive crime scene photography and a bird’s eye view of hidden marijuana fields.

It was the first law enforcement drone put to use in North Carolina, mimicking the very battlefield technology used to fire laser-guided missiles into camps of rebelling tribesmen in Afghanistan and to plot the area surrounding Osama Bin Laden’s compound in suburban Pakistan.

In early 2006, the CyberBug drew national attention — and scorn — for its clandestine reconnaissance mission over a gathering of motorcycle riders at the Gaston County fairgrounds, flying close enough to identify individual faces on the ground.

Though creeping police surveillance seemed permanent in Gaston County, the high hopes of law enforcement could not overcome the cumbersome red tape of federal bureaucracy.

In late 2010, the Federal Aviation Administration began limiting broader use of unmanned aircraft for civilians because of several safety concerns for crowded airspace, leaving the Gaston County P.D. wrangled in formal applications and procedural paperwork. Unable to secure the proper permit, the drone was eventually grounded and left collecting dust in a police storage facility.

From the deserts to the suburbs

Perhaps the most publicized use of the unmanned aircraft technology has been to target al-Qaeda suspects for assassination. Most notable is the September 2011 drone attack in Yemen which killed two American citizens, suspected militants Anwar al-Awlaki and Samir Kahn, the latter a former student at Central Piedmont Community College.

Paying homage to dystopian genre favorites “Minority Report” and George Orwell’s “1984,” Gaston County P.D.’s drone was purchased with the help of federal grants from the Department of Homeland Security, making the purchase of the $30,000 aircraft relatively easy.

Instead of hunting down suspected terrorists in the deserts and mountains of the Middle East, the extra funds provided by the federal government empowered the police department to take the technological advantage in tracking the criminals of Gastonia, Belmont, Cherryville and broader Gaston County.

In the end, however, it was the FAA’s own regulations which grounded North Carolina’s first police drone, disappointing the law enforcement officers who championed its purchase.

“It’ll just keep sitting there until we get permission,” lamented former Gaston County Police Chief William Farley at the time. “I get sad just thinking about it.”

FAA Fast track

Seeking to address this concern, among other things, Congress passed a bill fast-tracking the process for bringing more drones into local police jurisdictions.

The FAA Reauthorization and Reform Act, passed Monday by a 75-20 vote in the Senate, provides $64 billion in appropriations for the next four years, focusing on the shift to a satellite-based GPS navigation system as well as more-detailed regulation of airspace when drones are introduced in greater numbers.

The FAA estimates that more than 30,000 drones could be in the sky by 2020.

For civil libertarians, growing acceptance of drones is problematic, especially when the legislation contains no provisions for guarantees of privacy.

“Any American has to wonder whether or not there is an eye in the sky,” said Jay Stanley of the American Civil Liberties Union. “It’s very clear that this has come about so quickly for one simple reason: police want to use it, and industry wants to sell it.

“This pushes the nation willy-nilly toward an era of aerial surveillance without any steps to protect the traditional privacy that Americans have always enjoyed and expected.”

Hometown drones

Despite the green-light from Congress and the FAA, the future of drones in Gaston County remains uncertain.

“It was tough dealing with all the permits,” said Assistant Police Chief J.D. Ramey, “but now that it’s been grounded for so long, the CyberBug is virtually obsolete.

“Compared to all the other unmanned aircraft out there, ours has really aged. If we’d want to ever do any real patrols, we’d have to upgrade to more advanced technology.”

Published in the Gaston Gazette.

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