(HSToday) -The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) is testing a wide variety of Small Unmanned Aircraft Systems (SUAS) sensor platforms, including one that can determine whether individuals are armed or unarmed, for use by first responders and frontline homeland security professionals.
The testing is taking place at the Oklahoma Training Center for Unmanned Systems (OTC-UC), a unit of University Multispectral Laboratories (UML), a not-for-profit scientific institution operated for Oklahoma State University (OSU) by Anchor Dynamics, Inc. UML is a “Trusted Agent” for the federal government, technology developers and operators.
DHS’s Science and Technology Directorate’s (S&T) Borders and Maritime Security Division’s Robotic Aircraft for Public Safety (RAPS) testing program is evaluating numerous SUA and sensor systems to identify possible applications for first responders, including search-and-rescue scenarios, response to radiological and chemical incidents and fire response and mapping. In addition, the testing will help to determine whether SUAs are suitable for use by Customs and Border Protection (CBP) and US Coast Guard to provide lower altitude, quick response situational awareness in tactical situations.
SUAS sensor platforms are being tested for use by “first responder and homeland security operational communities” that “can distinguish between unarmed and armed (exposed) personnel,” as well as conducting detection, surveillance, tracking and laser designation of targets of interest at stand-off ranges, according to the RAPS Test Plan obtained by Homeland Security Today.
There’s also a requirement to test SUAS sensors for how well they can capture crime and accident “scene data with still-frame, high definition photos.”
But there’s nothing nefarious about having these sensor capabilities on SUAs for the needs of law enforcement and other first responders, said a RAPS program official, who requested anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the program publicly. DHS’s chief privacy official concluded that the testing program posed no privacy issues in the Nov. 16 Privacy Impact Assessment for the RAPS Project.
The RAPS Test Plan also involves testing sensor suites to “enhance the search and rescue capabilities of first responders by increasing [their] situational awareness.” And to that end, SUA sensors are being tested for their ability to “locate and provide the position of targets of interest satisfactorily for search and rescue personnel in a variety of terrain and day conditions.”
To enhance fire and disaster response capabilities of first responders by increasing their situational awareness, SUA sensors are being tested for their ability to locate and provide the position of fire or hot spots despite the presence of objects that obscure their line-of-site; locate and provide the position and concentration of chemical agents; and locate and provide the position and concentration of radiological agents.
The RAPS Test Plan explained that “Small Unmanned Aircraft Systems may soon become valuable tools for first and emergency responders and for those responsible for US border security.” It emphasized that “SUAS can provide tactical, rapid-response capabilities and much better situational awareness before field officers and agents respond to and engage in potentially dangerous operations.”
The test plan explained that “Within the United States, almost 50,000 police and fire departments exist but only about 300 (less than 1 percent) have aviation departments, owing primarily to the significant cost of acquiring, operating and maintaining manned fixed-wing and rotary-wing platforms. The estimated cost per flight hour for these assets is 300 times more expensive than commercially available SUAS which can be operated at costs lower than those of a typical police cruiser. But for state, county or city entities to become potential users of SUAS, their adoption must be justifiable and affordable. Improved sensor and platform capabilities, and economies of scale, now bring SUAS within reach of the budgets of many small first responder organizations.”
“Considering the size and diversity of the user communities targeted by this program,” the RAPS Test Plan said, “our approach concerning SUAS requirements is to focus primarily on advancing the near-term transition of good, affordable SUAS capabilities using relatively mature solutions. Working closely with senior law enforcement and fire operators in the field, we derived high-level SUAS needs tied to notional, top-priority scenarios for SUAS that, if realized, may or would provide good value to users — depending partly on the results of testing as envisioned” in the RAPS testing plan.
Consequently, the test plan explained that “The purpose of [the RAPS] project is to assess the extent to which SUAS can enhance situational awareness in support of first responder and border security events,” the test plan says, noting that “such events include, but are not limited to, law enforcement response, fire response, search and rescue, response to hazardous material (HAZMAT) spills or incidents and response to intrusions at US international borders.” In addition, “Where feasible and applicable, our testing will verify SUAS performance characteristics that may impact their eventual integration into the National Air Space System.”
“As one of many first responder support initiatives within DHS S&T, the primary outcome of RAPS will be a knowledge and database resource consisting of test reports, user testimonials and guidelines for adoption by the operational community,” the RAPS Test Plan pointed out. “The RAPS team will study fixed- and rotary-wing aircraft having gross takeoff weights of 25 lbs. or less, typically, using key performance measures in a variety of simulated but realistic, real-world operational scenarios that focus on the use of SUAS technology in response to situations where human lives are in imminent danger.”
The RAPS testing is being carried out at the Ft. Sill Army Post near Lawton, Okla. because DHS found the Army base “to be the optimal site to conduct RAPS test operations,” the test plan said. “The ready availability of restricted airspace at Ft. Sill and its central location within the continental US make it logistically accessible and convenient to participating vendors.” In addition, the test plan said “the Ft. Sill test sites offer good flying conditions year-round and provide a variety of terrain features needed for conducting search-and-rescue and other test scenarios.”
Oklahoma has emerged as a leader in Unmanned Aerial Systems (UAS). DHS is working closely with the state on the RAPS program through Gov. Mary Fallin’s Unmanned Aerial Systems Council, as the federal initiative is being conducted through OSU’s University Multispectral Laboratories’ advanced testing facility that’s uniquely positioned within Ft. Sill’s 200 square miles of restricted airspace.
“The strong support of the State of Oklahoma first responder community underscored the benefits of the Ft. Sill test site,” DHS said.
“Aerospace represents a significant portion of our state economy and UAS is expected to be the most dynamic growth sector within the aerospace industry in the next decade,” said Unmanned Systems Alliance of Oklahoma (USA-OK) President, James L. Grimsley. “This is an important time for the unmanned aerial systems industry and for Oklahoma.”
“Successful SUAS test operations at Ft. Sill may lead, later, to more complex SUAS operational testing at two other Oklahoma sites,” the RAPS Test Plan said. These sites are the Oklahoma National Guard’s Camp Gruber and the University Multispectral Laboratory’s test site at Chilocco, Okla., “both of which have varied and realistic urban complex facilities.”
The RAPS program began with DHS’s Request for Information (RFI) issued on Sept. 24, 2012 seeking white papers from SUAS vendors interested in participating in the testing project. The deadline for the papers was Oct. 31, 2012.
However, the testing program “is not linked to any intended procurement action, nor does it imply intent to initiate such action,” DHS explained.
Public and congressional concerns over the expanding use of UAVs of all kinds by federal, state and local law enforcement were exacerbated recently following a report by CNET.com that DHS has “customized its Predator drones” to be able to “identify civilians carrying guns and tracking their cell phones.”
CNET.com reported that DHS’s “specifications for its drones … ‘shall be capable of identifying a standing human being at night as likely armed or not,’” and that “They also specify ‘signals interception’ technology that can capture communications in the frequency ranges used by mobile phones and ‘direction finding’ technology that can identify the locations of mobile devices or two-way radios.”
The disclosure was based on an apparent “unredacted copy” of the May 26, 2005, CBP Office of Air and Marine (OAM) Performance Specification for the DHS/Customs and Border Protection Unmanned Aerial Vehicle System document that DHS released in redacted form to the Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC) pursuant to a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request.
An updated March 10, 2010 CBP OAM performance specifications document for CBP’s Predator B UAV also was obtained by EPIC under the FOIA, and portions of it also were redacted.
Most of the redactions, though, were made pursuant to legitimate FOIA exemptions authorizing the withholding of records compiled for law enforcement purposes or that would disclose techniques and procedures for law enforcement investigations.
Much of the redacted information deals with sensitive operational and performance capabilities of CBP’s fleet of Predators, as well sensitive technical data on the UAVs’ sensor packages and specifications.
A CBP spokesman told CNET.com the agency “is not deploying signals interception capabilities on its UAS fleet. Any potential deployment of such technology in the future would be implemented in full consideration of civil rights, civil liberties and privacy interests and in a manner consistent with the law and long-standing law enforcement practices.”
DHS’s RAPS Program Manager, Dr. John Appleby, told Homeland Security Today the department “is very sensitive to the privacy and civil rights issues that are involved with our [UAV] systems and testing.”
But privacy rights advocates don’t see it that way. EPIC’s Ginger McCall, director of the group’s Open Government Project, has said CBP’s UAS requirements documents “clearly evidence that the Department of Homeland Security is developing drones with signals interception technology and the capability to identify people on the ground,” and that “This allows for invasive surveillance, including potential communications surveillance, that could run afoul of federal privacy laws.”
A DHS official who spoke to Homeland Security Today on background about the issue explained that CBP needed to have “a whole host of requirements for its [Predators] for all possible needs to support border security operations, but that doesn’t mean they’re all being used … people jump to all sorts of conclusions based on what they think they know or understand.”
The official said the Predators are capable of distinguishing whether objects detected on the ground are people, animals, vehicles or something else, and emphasized that this capability is needed when, for example, the UAVs are being used to support Border Patrol agents on the ground who are trying to apprehend human- or narco-traffickers in difficult terrain or circumstances, or when conducting border surveillance missions for potential illegal cross-border activity.
But this capability isn’t any different from ground-based radar that can distinguish between a human and a truck CBP has tested that may be incorporated into its Integrated Fixed Tower program Homeland Security Today examined in detail last Oct.
As for the deployment of communications interception technology on CBP’s Predators, officials adamantly said there are numerous legal issues involved “that would have to be worked out” before this capability can routinely be used.