Cook: The Wasp Micro Air Vehicle is one of the Pentagon's latest surveillance tools

Cook: The Wasp Micro Air Vehicle is one of the Pentagon's latest surveillance tools

October 31st, 2011 by David Cook in Opinion Columns

It's called a Wasp.

About the size of a red-tailed hawk, yet with even better vision, the Wasp is what the Pentagon calls a Micro Air Vehicle: an unmanned drone designed for surveillance.

The Wasp can fly as high as 400 feet, weighs less than one pound, flies at 65 kilometers an hour, costs about $50,000 and has been used by the U.S. military for surveillance operations in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iraq.

And one day, Hamilton County Sheriff Jim Hammond believes, drones like the Wasp will fly in Chattanooga.

"Sooner rather than later," he said. "Drones are the next generation."

The Wasp can be controlled through manual operation or programmed with specific coordinates. In 2009, a Texas SWAT team -- after obtaining a search warrant -- used the Wasp to take video footage that led to the arrest of an armed suspect holed up in his house.

It was the first time unmanned drones had been used by law enforcement against U.S. citizens on domestic soil.

"Some drones exist that are the size of hummingbirds," said Hammond. "The sky is the limit."

He's referring to the Nano Hummingbird: a drone the size of an actual hummingbird that can take live video feeds. It is silent and weighs less than your cellphone.

In the next two years, it is expected that police across the country will begin to use unmanned drones as part of domestic surveillance practices, as the Federal Aviation Authority alters airspace rules allowing drones routinely to fly as low as 400 feet.

The drones would see us. You and me, on our way to work. To Coolidge Park. To Riverbend or Hamilton Place.

But we would not see them.

"The Future Is Unmanned," boasts the website of AeroVironment, the manufacturer of Wasps.

If you're shopping for drones, you're more than likely to find technology that can be used for thermal imaging, facial recognition and weapons-launching that make the Red Bank traffic cameras seem as threatening as that short-circuiting robot Steve Guttenberg made in the 1980s.

The overall effect of this has the potential to drastically change the relationship between authority and citizen, reduce privacy rights and create an atmosphere where no real public space is left.

"I agree with you," said Hammond. "There's another side. [Drone use] must be controlled by people in legislation. State and federal judgments must determine probable cause."

Drones, of course, can be used to reduce crime while lowering the risk of harm for police officers. But so can job creation. And good schools. And fathers and mentors.

And if drones can be used for unmanned surveillance, does that also mean we should expect armed drones used as patrol?

Think about that for a moment.

I hope the same Second Amendment-loving folks who pushed for broader places to carry firearms will also rally behind an opposition to drones, which seem to completely contradict the heartbeat of the Constitution and its desire for citizen freedom and protection from over-reaching authority.

"You won't get any arguments from me," said Hammond. "Citizens will have to step up and demand that they are used properly."

David Cook can be reached at david cook@blumail.org.