The Department of Homeland Security is advancing its plan to use surveillance drones for “public safety” applications, announcing last week that it had received a deluge of “excellent” responses from potential vendors and was set to carry out more tests of the technology.
As we first reported in July last year, DHS Secretary Janet Napolitano told a House Committee on Homeland Security that the federal agency was “looking at drones that could be utilized to give us situational awareness in a large public safety [matter] or disaster,” despite the fact that the agency had previously indicated it was reticent to use spy drones to keep tabs on the public.
This was followed by a “market research” announcement in September that confirmed the DHS was exploring a “Robotic Aircraft for Public Safety” (RAPS) project, and was asking small unmanned aerial systems (SUAS) vendors to take part.
In an update posted on the FedBizOpps website last week (PDF), the federal agency announced that, “Vendor response to our Request for Information (RFI), Number: DHS 13-01, on small unmanned aircraft systems (SUAS) was excellent and included the submission of over 70 white papers.”
The announcement added that a small number of the submissions would now be participating in the “first phase of assessments” for the technology in 2013 and 2014. The DHS refuses to specify which proposals were accepted and for what reasons.
Initial testing of robotic spy drones for “public safety” applications was conducted by the DHS’ Science and Technology directorate at Fort Sill, Oklahoma last year.
As Wired Magazine reported, the DHS is pursuing lightweight spy drones that can fly for two hours at a time, but it is also interested in military-style drones fitted with cameras that can spy on up to four square miles at a time.
As we reported last week, the ARGUS-IS surveillance camera system, developed by BAE Systems in conjunction with DARPA, has the capability to track every moving object across an area of 15 square miles, or a medium-sized city – and could be fitted to unmanned drones that can stay airborne for years at a time.
The DHS is already using another type of airborne drone surveillance, also utilized to track insurgents in Afghanistan and Iraq, for the purposes of “emergency and non-emergency incidents” within the United States.
Experts predict that there will be 30,000 surveillance drones in American skies by 2020 following a bill passed last year by Congress that permits the use of unmanned aerial spy vehicles on domestic soil.
Last week, a Federal Aviation Administration official told a conference in Northern Virginia that unmanned surveillance drones deployed in US airspace would not be armed with missiles.