Drones Could Mitigate Terrorist Attacks

By Yasmin Tadjdeh
When a pressure cooker bomb exploded in April 2013 during the Boston marathon, three people were killed and hundreds were injured. Had a drone been employed to watch over the race, it is possible the attack could have been prevented, said one unmanned aerial vehicle expert.

Before the explosions, the terrorists — Dzhokhar Tsarnaev and Tamerlan Tsarnaev — dropped bags that contained the bombs near the crowded race route.

“If we had had drones with the appropriate kinds of cameras, with the appropriately trained people watching the video feeds … there is a possibility … [law enforcement] would have had a much better chance of spotting that suspicious activity,” said Michael Braasch, a professor of electrical engineering at Ohio University who specializes in UAV technology.

Drones provide law enforcement with a unique vantage point and serve as eyes in the sky. Such technology, coupled with surveillance payloads, works well in crowd situations where police officers often have limited situational awareness.

Historically, police departments have used helicopters to keep watch over crowds, but they can be noisy and expensive.

“It’s not really the best way to be conducting surveillance,” he said. “Having drones allows law enforcement to do the surveillance much more economically and, frankly, much more efficiently.”

Using a variety of sensors, including electro-optic and multi-spectral, officials may be able to pinpoint the location of bombs. Multi-spectral sensors can detect a variety of explosive materials based in part on their temperatures and reflecting properties, he noted.

But without a regulatory exemption, commercial and civil drone operators are currently sidelined from flying until the Federal Aviation Administration completes work on its small UAS rule — a piece of governance that will stipulate the do’s and don’ts of domestic drone operation.

Even when domestic operations are widely legalized in the next several years, the question of whether law enforcement should use UAVs in its missions will depend largely on how state and local governments grapple with privacy concerns, Braasch said.

More than 30 states have some sort of UAV regulations in place, he noted. States and municipalities are still trying to strike a balance between privacy and security.

However, because drones can be used for a number of public safety missions, that should “help to propel or stimulate the government bodies to pass the legislation needed to give … law enforcement the appropriate rules of the road so they can put them to use,” he said.

Topics: Homeland Security, Disaster Response, Robotics, Unmanned Air Vehicles

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