HOUSTON, TEXAS — Drones, the small flying machines carrying cameras, have become a modern-day blessing and a curse for law enforcement and scientists.
“The thing that can kind of keep you up at night is somebody using it to harm people. We’ve seen that already,” said Larry Satterwhite, Houston Police Department’s assistant chief over homeland security.
Drones have become easily accessible to consumers at relatively low costs. Law enforcement officials and researchers said people are using them to harm others.
Drones as threats
“There are actual cases in the United States and in other places where people have brought in drugs or guns to prisons and they drop them to the inmates. In certain areas of the Middle East right now, they’re using them as weapons and dropping small explosive onto people,” said Richard Lusk, director of Unmanned Aerial Systems Research Center at Oak Ridge National Laboratory.
“Technology as it is, is going so fast. We often find ourselves playing catchup to the technology that’s out there,” Satterwhite said.
There are ways of preventing threats posed by drones by attacking the electronics inside the machines.
“They’re essentially electronic devices that rely in part on GPS. So, if you think about that, you can spoof a GPS system. You can use an EMP (electromagnetic) pulse or an RF (radiofrequency) pulse to disrupt their communications from the driver or actually the onboard electronics and then basically fry the electronics,” said Lusk.
Drones as lifesavers
On the flip side, drones can also have lifesaving benefits.
“Like any technology there is the yin and the yang. There’s the dark and the light,” Lusk said.
In the chemical industry, drones are being used to inspect structures to replace people in doing dangerous work. The Shell, Deer Park Refinery near Houston started using drones in the past year.
“At a big site like mine, where we have super structures that are almost 400 feet in the air, I’m not having to get somebody lifted up some way. I can put that drone up there and get a great visual of what needs to be done and then decide how we respond to that event,” said Gary Scheibe, Shell Deer Park Refinery security manager.
Extra set of eyes
A growing number of U.S. law enforcement agencies are using drones to investigate and clear freeways faster. Drones can also help in search and rescue cases.
“You can see the body heat maybe of a child, whereas people walking across a field may never see them and this has been proven multiple times worldwide,” Lusk said.
The technology is continuing to advance. Sophisticated sensors such as night vision, methane detectors and X-ray capabilities can be placed on drones. Researchers are even looking at drones the size of a dragonfly.
“Probably along the lines of some Department of Defense and high-end research is to make them mimic small-insect sized, therefore you don’t pay any attention to insects outside so you wouldn’t pay attention to that [drone],” said Lusk.
Drone researchers say it will become an arms race to develop methods of preventing harmful drones, as people continue to use these machines for the good.