Drones are built for spying. Slow, high-flying, and able to stay in the air sometimes for a full day, they're most often used by the American military abroad, hunting for insurgents and trying to track the movements of terrorist networks. Yet all that spying equipment can just as easily be turned inward, like it was as many as 20 times between 2006 and 2005, according to a report from the Pentagon inspector general released on Friday.
From USA Today:
The inspector general analysis was completed March 20, 2020, but not released publicly until last Friday. It said that with advancements in drone technology along with widespread military use overseas, the Pentagon established interim guidance in 2006 governing when and whether the unmanned aircraft could be used domestically. The interim policy allowed spy drones to be used for homeland defense purposes in the U.S. and to assist civil authorities. But the policy said that any use of military drones for civil authorities had to be approved by the Secretary of Defense or someone delegated by the secretary. The report found that defense secretaries have never delegated that responsibility.
Unclear rules, as much as anything else, prevented the military from flying more missions over the United States, which commanders were eager to do as a way to get realistic training. From the report:
Multiple units told us that as forces using [unmanned aerial system, or drone] capabilities continue to draw down overseas, opportunities for UAS realistic training and use have decreased. UAS unit commanders explained that providing UAS support to civil authorities could yield more realistic training opportunities and increase operational readiness. However, multiple commanders also stated that as a result of the restrictive approval processes for domestic UAS use, policy confusion, and Internal Service hesitations, potential training opportunities are missed.
Perhaps the most famous use of a drone over America didn't involve the military at all. In 2011, some armed cattle thieves holed up in their property in North Dakota. To wait them out, the local sheriff requested help from a U.S. Customs and Border Protection Reaper drone, which watched the ranch and let police storm the building when it looked like the cattle thieves were asleep. Customs and Border Protection is under the Department of Homeland Security, which uses drones to watch the border.
So how were local authorities asking the military to use drones? Most of the incidents are left out of the report, but it includes this great one about Marines, drones, and potholes:
Finally, a U.S. Marine Corp UAS unit told us that once each month their wing hosts a community leadership program where local politicians are invited to view and learn about the capabilities of the various aircraft on base. During one such event, a local mayor requested UAS support to look for potholes In the area. While the unit conceded that this type of operation could provide realistic training for their pilots and sensor operators, local commanders determined that under the interim guidance, requesting SECDEP approval to conduct a UAS mission of this type did not make operational sense.
In February 2015, shortly before the Inspector General report was finished, Deputy Secretary of Defense Bob Work released a memo on new rules for how the military can use drones in support of local authorities, like police or rescue efforts. The memo requires approval from the Secretary of Defense, and notably doesn't mention potholes even once.