My colleague Rebecca Rosen over at the Atlantic Wire picked up an interesting article from Sunday’s Minneapolis Star Tribune about a Predator drone housed at the Grand Forks Air Force Base being lent to local police during a standoff.
The subject of the standoff, farmer Rodney Brossart, may be the first person arrested inside the United States with an assist from an unmanned aircraft. Brossart and his family engaged police in a 16-hour standoff after he refused to return a neighbor’s cows that wandered onto his property. Police asked Air Force officials to fly the drone over the property to find out whether Brossart was armed or not.
The story raised questions about the future of drone use in domestic law enforcement. It also brought back memories. I was a reporter at the Grand Forks Herald for two years, from 2006 to 2008, during which time I covered both military officials’ efforts to bring drone technology to the state -- part of a wider plan to save the base from closure in the BRAC process -- and a burgeoning program in unmanned aircraft development and piloting at the University of North Dakota.
Both programs used North Dakota’s wide open skies and flat landscape as selling points because drones were less likely to cause problems for commercial aircraft and there were fewer tall buildings to get in the way.
Most of the talk at UND in those early days wasn’t about developing unmanned military drones -- a market that was essentially cornered by major contractors -- but about domestic uses for drones such as monitoring farmer’s fields for invasive species, tracking wildfires and searching for missing people.
The popular term for drones there was unmanned aerial systems, or UASs, which had the benefit of sounding politically neutral if inelegant.
My strongest memory of the UND program was a briefing about a new Canadian-designed UAS that came to the university called CropCam. I’d never seen a UAS before. I was shocked and a little disappointed when I arrived and found it sitting on a professor’s desk. The UAS was 4 feet long with an 8-foot wingspan and weighted about 6 pounds, a far cry from the Predators I was used to seeing in photos.
The professor who was doing the demonstration launched it by hand, just tossing it over his head like a model airplane.