A rapidly expanding $3.2-million effort by the Department of Homeland Security seeks to accelerate the use of drones by police and fire departments, the Los Angeles Times reports. In October, the department plans to invite drone manufacturers to Ft. Sill, Ok., where their aircraft will be scored on how they perform in a series of scenarios, such as a hostage standoff, an earthquake or a hazardous material spill. A rating system will rank the capabilities of the various models. The Times calls it a Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval for drones.
Some legal experts are worried about the effect of surveillance drones in U.S. skies. “This is putting the cart before the horse where DHS and other federal agencies are looking to put money toward drone use without looking at what it means for privacy and civil liberties,” said Jennifer Lynch of the Electronic Frontier Foundation in San Francisco. DHS has awarded hundreds of thousands of dollars in grants to at least 13 police departments to buy small surveillance drones. Safety restrictions by the Federal Aviation Administration and the fact that some models have proved difficult to use have kept most on the ground. Congress now has required the FAA to ease restrictions on commercial drone use in U.S. airspace by 2015. Next year, the administration is expected to issue a rule allowing law enforcement and first responders to fly small unmanned aerial vehicles.