Monday, March 11, 2013

A drone makes its debut

The American Civil Liberties Union wants a closer look at how police departments are using unmanned aerial vehicles and other military technology originally intended for use overseas.  

But some in North Carolina have had a close look at how they work -- and how they don't.  

As a reporter covering Gaston County in 2006, I was at the commissioners meeting when police got approval to buy the $30,000 drone. And I was there a month later when it failed its debut.  

Several things went wrong. At some point, the rudder broke on the craft and it couldn't turn left. It also stopped responding to the global positioning signals that guide it.  

So instead of seeing a display of aeronautic innovation, we saw a grey fuselage slowly disappearing into the horizon. At the end of the demonstration, operators had to essentially crash-land the Cyberbug in a field away from the cameras.  

Gaston County Police believed that for the price of a patrol car, they had purchased a substitute for a police helicopter -- a device that could track marijuana growing fields or help search for runaways. Then-Chief Bill Farley even suggested that other county departments could use the device to, say, get aerial pictures or video of ongoing construction. 

After it crashed, county police told us we were seeing a glitch. In a story the next day, I wrote: "Farley asserts that the police department and the county have a valuable tool. They just have to work out the bugs and get officers more training, he said." 

But seven years later, the Cyberbug has never been used outside of training.

Unmanned aerial vehicles have come far since that flight.  According to the New York Times, the Pentagon has about 7,000 unmanned drones, up from 50 a decade ago. And the makers of the Cyberbug have updated the device

Last week, the city of Monroe gave approval for its police department to buy a drone. So we may see another debut soon. -- Cleve R. Wootson Jr. 


  1. The website that makes the drone says it was formed in 2008, but you said you saw the first one fail in 2006. How does that work?

  2. UAVs have a domestic role. But it is not flying over private property and looking to see what the PO-Po can see.

    Invasion of privacy

  3. Spying on American citizens is just plain wrong!
    Obama says the debt we in is no problem!!
    So why do we need to play I Spy.
    They would come in good on some things,but
    everyone knows we can't trust our gov to do what they say.