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Homeland Security to experiment with rescue drones inside the United States

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The Homeland Security Department expects to fly drones inside the borders of the United States for emergency response purposes, DHS Secretary Janet Napolitano said Wednesday in the wake of criticism that her department is not more involved in supervising the expanded use of domestic unmanned aircraft.

She told lawmakers at a House hearing that drone regulation is an air traffic control issue, and therefore is a responsibility of the Federal Aviation Administration. DHS is assisting FAA with forthcoming rules related to Homeland Security’s unmanned aircraft, she added.

Napolitano, however, does see a need for the DHS Science and Technology Directorate to conduct research into unmanned systems that would fly within the country during crises, she said.

“With respect to Science and Technology, that directorate, we do have a funded project, I think it’s in California, looking at drones that could be utilized to give us situational awareness in a large public safety [matter] or disaster, such as a forest fire, and how they could give us better information,” she said.

Homeland Security currently operates drones to police illicit activity along the nation’s northern and southern borders, as well as neighboring seas. But, increasingly, other government agencies are borrowing DHS drones or procuring their own for scouting populated areas -- without the department’s supervision, lawmakers complain.

DHS officials on July 19 declined to appear at a House Homeland Security Oversight, Investigations and Management Subcommittee hearing that largely focused on the department’s role in protecting citizens from drone abuse. There is wide bipartisan concern that the remotely piloted planes will capture personal data, fall victim to hackers, or worse.

In September 2011, authorities arrested a man in connection with a plot to attack Washington landmarks using bomb-toting unmanned aircraft.

“Less than a year ago, we had a man who tried and attempted to use this drone, but was thwarted by the FBI, in an attempt to blow up the Pentagon and the U.S. Capitol,” subcommittee Chairman Michael McCaul, R-Texas, said at Wednesday’s full committee hearing. McCaul was surprised to learn DHS sent no witnesses to the previous week’s hearing because the department felt it has no role regarding non-DHS drones, he added.

McCaul is prepared to mandate that DHS coordinate with the Justice Department and FAA on the oversight of drones that fly within the country, but he would prefer the Obama administration do so without a requirement from Congress, he said. “I do think the FAA controls the safety of the airways, but doesn’t really focus on security, per se, and I think that is an appropriate role for the department,” McCaul said.

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