Washington, DC — The U.S. Forest Service has purchased pilot-less aircraft to provide day and night photo reconnaissance for its law enforcement program, according to agency records released today by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER). The two “unmanned aerial vehicles,” or drones, may represent the beginnings of wider conversion of military robotic technology for civilian uses.
The two “Sky Seers” were obtained by the Forest Service on December 10, 2007 at a cost of $100,000 from Chang Industries, Inc. of La Verne, California. The package includes one “day version” and one “night version” of the drone, together with a “Pan/tilt thermal camera” to record heat signatures at night.
A March 12, 2007 purchase request from the Forest Service Law Enforcement & Investigations (LE&I) program states it “has been monitoring and evaluating UAVs [unmanned aerial vehicles] intermittently since 1997, when their use was considered in support of Operation Linebacker, a border enforcement initiative.” While this “Sole Source Request” details desired equipment specifications, the Forest Service could produce no documents spelling out what they want to use drones for or why pilot-less craft are preferred, in response to a Freedom of Information Act request from PEER.
The drones purchase took place shortly after Forest Service LE&I spent $600,000 buying tasers for its entire enforcement staff, without any guidelines or training program. The tasers are still sitting in storage cartons. After PEER revealed the taser fiasco, LE&I staff told PEER about the drones and suggested a records request in order to validate staff concerns that the purchase –
- Has little practical law enforcement application in the national forests and reflects a “boys with toys” mentality among LE&I leadership;
- May also sit in storage because LE&I lacks qualified personnel to operate the drones. Although the purchase package includes training, LE&I notes that new Federal Aviation Administration rules “could make it more difficult to obtain Certificates of Authorization to fly the UAVs”; and
- Is a low priority when the Forest Service is cutting back on the number of Special Agents and law enforcement officers. Forest Service law enforcement force levels have shrunk by more than one-third over the past 15 years. LE&I is holding more than 200 positions vacant, even as President Bush is proposing further cuts in the next fiscal year.
“As with tasers, a cash-starved Forest Service is buying glitzy hardware with zero justification as to why this is a good use of tax dollars,” stated PEER Executive Director Jeff Ruch. “Why stop at drones? Are they going to buy Robo-Rangers next?”
In contrast to LE&I, Forest Service Fire Management is making a relatively modest investment in drones as a possible tool to aid fighting wildland fires. In 2005, the agency’s fire program spent $10,560 on a Cyber Bug drone to begin developing greater command and control capacity in fast-moving fires.
Unlike fire uses, law enforcement application of aerial monitoring raises privacy issues for forest visitors who may not realize that they are being watched, photographed and cybercast from an elevation of 7,000 feet by a drone. The Sky Seers can hover for more than one hour and have quiet electric motors.
“The use of spy technology in the domestic U.S. should not be undertaken lightly,” Ruch added. “Before the Forest Service deploys eyes in the sky, the agency should write some basic rules to prevent abuse.”
Today, the Chief of the Forest Service appears before two U.S. Senate committees to justify its budget request for the coming fiscal year.