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Boston police chief wants drones for next year’s marathon

Published time: April 26, 2013 16:57
Boston Police Commissioner Ed Davis (Reuters/Neal Hamberg)

Boston Police Commissioner Ed Davis (Reuters/Neal Hamberg)

United States Vice President Joe Biden says the 2014 Boston Marathon will be "bigger, more spectacular" than ever before, and the city’s police commissioner could see that through with some serious changes starting at next year’s race.

Notwithstanding last week’s terrorist attack that killed three and wounded hundreds, Boston, Massachusetts is expected to continue its tradition of hosting the annual 26-mile run next spring. Speaking to the city’s Herald newspaper though, Boston Police Commissioner Ed Davis says he’s looking to add at least one new element in 2014: unmanned aerial vehicles.

Weighing in with regards to how his city will ensure another attack won’t ruin next year’s marathon, Davis says he’s looking towards obtaining a drone aircraft to conduct surveillance from the Boston sky.

Drones are a great idea. I don’t know that would be the first place I’d invest money, but certainly to cover an event like this, and have an eye in the sky that would be much cheaper to run than a helicopter is a really good idea,” he tells the Herald.

Elsewhere in the interview, Commissioner Davis says the city must do everything possible to prevent terrorists from attacking their city again. “We need to harden our target here,” Davis says. “We need to make sure terrorists understand that if they’re thinking about coming here, we have certain things in place that would make that not a good idea. Because they could hit any place. They’re going to go for the softest, easiest thing to hit.”

We need to gather all the information we can as to what happened and make a determination as to the overall commitment the city of Boston has to the threat of terrorism,” he says. “That’s very, very important to me. It’s very important to the mayor. I’m sure there will be a lot of questions about that.”

Indeed questions are quickly amounting, and they’ve been asked of officials in Massachusetts and else since well before last week’s attack. The Federal Aviation Administration expects tens of thousands of drones in US airspace by the end of the decade, and already the FAA is approving Certificates of Waiver or Authorization (COA) for a number of law enforcement agencies on target to fully take America into the age of drones.

The FAA says that 327 COAs were active as of February of this year, but a recent report published by the Los Angeles Times suggests that surveillance drones could fully permeate airspace earlier than once thought. According to the Times, the FAA issued 1,428 permits to domestic drone operators since 2007, a statistic that Electronic Frontier Foundation staff attorney Jennifer Lynch says is “far more than were previously known.”

The EFF has filed Freedom of Information Act requests with the FAA in recent years to try and get the facts of the expansive use of drones, but the federal agency has been less than fully compliant in terms of answering their questions. Discrepancies exist in the statistics that have been released, admits the EFF, but at the same time what has been brought to light through these FOIA requests reveals a great deal about domestic drone use that might otherwise not be made public.

Thanks to efforts by the EFF and others, Americans now know the names of dozens of law enforcement and educational entities that have applied for a permit to put experimental drones up in the sky, and that list includes institutions such as Cornell University, the Houston, Texas Police Department and a number of federal agencies, especially branches of the US Department of Homeland Security.

And while no record of an applicant looking for a drone permit in Massachusetts has been published, it’s quite possible that the unmanned planes will be cleared to fly over cities like Boston and Lowell in little time. In fact, some Massachusetts legislators are already looking at stopping the spread of drones in their state before law enforcement agencies capitalize on the aircraft’s surveillance capabilities: in January, Republican State Senator Robert L. Hedlund introduced S.B. 1664, “An Act to regulate the use of unmanned aerial vehicles.”

If Sen. Hedlund’s bill is passed, Massachusetts law enforcement will be limited with how they operate drones within the state. The senator’s act has been approved by a number of colleagues in the state capitol, and if enacted it will forbid police agencies from using UAVs for dragnet surveillance. Hedlund’s law limits drone to single out only persons of interest named in official court warrants, and biometric matching technology would not be allowed to be implemented on any other person picked up by a drone’s cameras.

Earlier this month, the Florida State Senate voted unanimously to ban law enforcement agencies there to conduct overhead spy missions using unmanned aerial vehicles except in situations where the DHS believes that drones could deter a high-risk terrorist attack.

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