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Domestic Drones Aren’t All They’re Cracked Up to Be

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A United States Border Patrol drone takes off from Sierra Vista, Arizona.

Gary Williams/Getty Images

Drones – they’re not just for raining death from foreign skies. Unmanned aerial vehicles are buzzing around in domestic airspace, too, in ever greater numbers, patroling the U.S.-Mexican border, hunting for pot farms, chasing down fugitives. They are the future of law enforcement. And boy, do they do a lousy job.

Via the Center for Public Integrity’s iWatch News, a new internal audit from the Department of Homeland Security pinpoints two basic problems with domestic drones: They’re insanely expensive and super high maintenance. So, for instance, for each hour of flight your typical drone requires an hour of maintenance; also, drones don’t like bad weather, and so in 2011 they flew for only about half the time they were supposed to. Considering your typical domestic craft retails for about $18 million a piece – DHS has spent over $250 million on them in the past six years – this isn’t great.

Not working very well isn’t the only strike against domestic drones. Privacy advocates point out that tens of thousands of giant eyeballs in the sky — 30,000 by 2020, according to one count — gives the government plenty of opportunity to invade the privacy of everyday Americans, deliberately or not. 

Put it all together and you might think: so much for drones. But no. Americans love them a domestic drone (unless it’s going after speeders). And so, of course, do the feds and the cops: “Domestic use of drones seems slated for a sharp increase, no matter what the statistics show,” notes iWatch. Which means lots more “military-grade drones like those used by DHS on the border, and smaller surveillance craft that are cheap enough to be purchased by local law enforcement.”

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