The FBI may have drones, but according to a new report, it isn't using them very often. The report comes from the Department of Justice's Inspector General, which found that the FBI's drone program is currently limited to just 17 working drones and two pilots. Most importantly, all of the drones operate out of a single location, severely limiting the range and response time of the program. As a result of the FBI’s centralized approach to UAS," the report writes, "the single team of UAS pilots has needed to travel up to thousands of miles to support FBI investigations across the United States."
According to the report, the FBI is the only Department of Justice agency with an active drone program, and has used drones in 13 investigations between September 2006 and August 2014. (The number has climbed slightly since previous reports: in July of 2013, the FBI said it had used drones a total of 10 times since 2006.) The FBI has said it will build out more comprehensive drone capabilities over the next five years, but the report found it "had not fully developed plans to implement that goal."
The FBI has flown drones in 13 investigations since September of 2006
The report only looks at federal law enforcement, excluding military and intelligence drones deployed overseas. It also doesn't bear on any drones deployed informally by local and state law enforcement. When drones are used over US soil, they're usually flown by US Customs and Border Protection, which often provides support to the FBI and other domestic agencies. But there seems to be little documentation of when and how domestic law enforcement borrows CBP's drones, leading to some transparency concerns. "Without better tracking and documentation," the report states, "we believe that DOJ components may not be able to accurately assess their need for UAS support."
More broadly, the report suggests most Department of Justice agencies haven't embraced drones in any serious way, in part because of ongoing legal issues. The FAA requires Certificate of Waiver or Authorization before any agency operates a drone within US borders, which typically limits activities to a specific area. Agencies can obtain an emergency waiver for life-threatening circumstances, but the extra hurdles seem to have convinced most agencies to stick with manned crafts like helicopters.
As Empty Wheel's Marcy Wheeler points out, the government also doesn't seem to be getting very much drone for its money. The ATF spent $600,000 on three different kinds of rotary-wing drones before deciding they were unsuitable for operational use and suspending its drone program. By contrast, the FBI spent $3 million on its drones, only half of which are currently operational.