30,000 Drones May Watch Americans by 2020

Unmanned air vehicles overseas enable 24/7 ground surveillance and air-to-ground combat. Now drones are coming to your neighborhood.

As a warfare technology, UAVs have been copied by the Chinese and other governments. Domestically, an increasing number of drones are patrolling the skies over the US. This has led to an all-out design and manufacturing push.

President Obama asked Congress and the FAA last year to approve the passing of legislation that will make the air above the United States open for all manner of drone aircraft.

These drones flying at a maximum ceiling of 400 feet will have sophisticated cameras with audio, video, and infrared capabilities that can pick up images and heat signatures for search-and-rescue, crime, and terrorist interdiction. A drone as small as a hummingbird can carry sensors that are capable of monitoring ground events, like your backyard BBQ.

Let's consider the less obvious equipment that may come equipped on Hummingbird v2.0. Virtually any wireless subsystem transmitting data from a vast variety of sensing devices will be able, not only to read ground events, but also to monitor small changes in the ambience in real-time. Sensor networks transmitting to ground receivers will be able to sweep an area for temperature, movement, sound, light, radiation, stress, vibration, smoke, gasses, impurities, and biological and chemical agents.

Now who wouldn't want to be assured that the air above their house is safe to breathe? This is just one of the arguments we will be hearing in support of mass drone deployments in the US.

According to a recent Washington Post article, the FAA has issued hundreds of certificates to police, government agencies, and a handful of research institutions to allow them to fly drones with various capabilities over the United States for particular missions.

The agency said it issued 313 certificates in 2011, and 295 of them were still active at the end of the year. The FAA refuses to disclose which agencies have the certificates and what their purposes are.

How many certificates for domestic drones does the US have today? We don't know. The Los Angeles Times and the Government Accountability Office reported that the FAA has issued 1,428 permits to domestic drone operators since January 2007.

Spies in the skies
The LA Times article states the FAA's projected number of drones that would be above us by 2020 may be as high as 30,000. So if we do the math and say there are 50 states in the US, we surmise 600 drones per state. Using the estimate of 30,000 incorporated cities, it would appear that the government does indeed plan to have at least one state-sponsored drone flying over your home town.

Now let's be realistic. No industry is going to thrive on just 30,000 of anything unless they are supercomputer or satellite manufacturers. So, be on the look-out for a massive proliferation of large and small airborne robots whose whole reason for existence is looking after your security, whatever that word means anymore.

I'm not a criminal or even a person of interest, but with the number of street-level cameras on the rise, listening devices for cellphone and land-line conversations, and now drones flying over my backyard, I think my security is being threatened by feelings of insecurity.

I don't trust the people behind the cameras and joysticks to not abuse their power. At the very least, if I were a skinny dipper, I would take my last dip in the pool very soon. When this technology gets in the hands of really nasty, “ordinary citizen”-type people, it will be time to close your accounts on social networks and get some cosmetically altering surgery done by an unlisted plastic surgeon.

40 comments on “30,000 Drones May Watch Americans by 2020

  1. Houngbo_Hospice
    May 28, 2013

    Nice article. But a little bit pessimistic.  There are valid concerns that it might end up into the hands of the wrong guys. But I think there will be good regulations in place about who will get access and use the technology or not. 

  2. dalexander
    May 28, 2013

    @Hospice…I believe that just as there are gun CAD designs for home 3D prinitng already on the net, that there will also be model aiplane size 3D printable CAD designs for Drones on the internet in the near future. When you can purchase small cameras, and other sensors that can be mounted on these home made drones, and it becomes a common sight to see drones over America, who is going to patrol the skys to determine if the drone that just passed over your house wasn't built and remotely operated by one of your neighbors…or a burglar casing and mapping your house for pontential vunerable break-in locations? Bad guys don't give a hoot about regulations. By the time someone reported a rogue drone, it is back home and off loading its video and out of sight. I am not pessimistic so much as I have my eyes open to both technology enablements and the dark side of both man and his toys.

  3. Houngbo_Hospice
    May 28, 2013


    All valid points, I would say. But the technology is already here. The question is what shall we do now to avoid its improper use? 

  4. dalexander
    May 28, 2013

    @Hospice…I think it would be easier to put the feathers back into the pillow. It is kind of like a Pandora's box thing. Once the lid has been opened, you can't get it closed and all kinds of foul things are unleashed upon the world. We just have to hunker down and make sure we have a bullet proof umbrella. It is about to start raining down stuff a lot more serious than cats and dogs.

  5. Ravenwood
    May 28, 2013
    “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men.” Mantra of modern-day conspiracy theorists? Crazed anarchists? Hardly. It was arguably first uttered by John Emerich Edward Dalberg Acton, AKA “first Baron Acton” (1834–1902). Likely by others even earlier, with variation.
    At this very moment the networks are abuzz with details concering State Department coverups, the misuse of the IRS by one politcal party against another, recent mistreatment of the free media, ongoing U.S. violations of the Geneva Convention and similar incidents that invariably see Generals, diplomats and underlings stepping-down and those holding ultimate responsibility saying “I didn't know, but we'll get to the bottom of this…”.
    Remember how the TSA assured us no naked passenger photos would be maintained, distributed or otherwise unethically handled? That failed in less than a year before YouTube proved civilian security really is a government joke.

    This is why we already see the emergence of DIY R/C countermeasures for civilians, including jet-powered interceptors, and chaps who claim to have fashioned short range anti-dronecraft microwave “beam” weapons, and another with a similar but omnidirectional EMF micro-burst device.
    Gotta-go, some guys just came-up to my door…
    Sparky ?
  6. ProcurementEtc
    May 28, 2013

    the majority of crime is unpredictable v. planned.  Even planned ones like boston bombings wouldn've have been prevented nor made outcome less horrific.  to have any value the drone would have to be at the right place and right time, by citizen complaint or other intelligence.  Looking at big picture those 3 instances would be miniscule.   i don't see value of dispatching a drone for a look-see in place of police officer.  waiting for drone to confirm crime before dispatching officer could cost lives and property. 

    i agree the risk of abuse right now is enormous.  there are no laws, regulations or common sense checks and balances in place to protect citizens. at this moment it's more likely to be used to commit v. prevent/mitigate crime.  at this very moment there's nothing to prevent a pedophile from using a drone to target, follow, record kids. right now it's possible for a wacko neighbor to fly a drone and peek in your windows, it's not legally considered trespassing, stalking, harrassment or voyeurism.  while i'm sure we all agree that's unacceptable we have no recourse. 

    not to mention there's no talk of increasing law enforcement, judicial and state budgets to support increase in arrests, prosecution and incaceration. when these components aren't in the equation it just further lessens their value.

  7. Taimoor Zubar
    May 28, 2013

    This is why we already see the emergence of DIY R/C countermeasures for civilians, including jet-powered interceptors, and chaps who claim to have fashioned short range anti-dronecraft microwave “beam” weapons, and another with a similar but omnidirectional EMF micro-burst device.”

    @Sparky: That's a valid point. I have been all up for disarming the citizens and de-weaponizing the masses but I think that's only possible when the government plays its part and takes security and interests of the people seriously. With initiatives like these, the public will be forced to come up with measures for their own security.

  8. Taimoor Zubar
    May 28, 2013

    We just have to hunker down and make sure we have a bullet proof umbrella. It is about to start raining down stuff a lot more serious than cats and dogs.”

    @Douglas: I agree. When the government fails to control their own “pandora box”, the citizens have to take charge and defend themselves. The cost of this should be borne by the government itself because they're the ones who failed to control in the first place.

  9. dalexander
    May 28, 2013

    @All…I think this topic has a lot more heating up to do before it comes close to cooling down…if ever. With over 1400 licenses already issued and the names of those holding the drone rights being withheld, I don't recall ever being asked to vote up or down on the policy or action of this kind of literal government “Oversight” (Literally with drones flying over head equipped with sight.) This puts a whole new definition on the meaning of the word “Oversight.”

  10. Tom Murphy
    May 28, 2013

    I'm torn about all this. On one hand, yes, I share the fear any rational being would that my privacy will be invaded.  In the US, this right was written into our Constitution in the Fourth Amendment — showing this has been a concern for more than two centuries and long before the technology we have today was invented.  And that right will guide the use of drones, too.

    On the other hand, I am absolutely thrilled to be living in an age when technology is advancing to a point where we have such profound questions.  Would anyone really prefer to live in the 18th century? Really?

  11. dalexander
    May 28, 2013

    @Tom…We must try to remember that when the Bill of Rights was written, a fully automatic rifle was a musket. Applying the rules anachronistically should not always hold sway if the world is so entirely changed that I believe our forefathers would definitely have drafted a different Bill had they seen what was coming. I think you are right on when you imply this will be a constitutional argument on both sides. May I predict that at some point, the US Supreme Court will be called into rule on both individual cases that have pertinence to drones and individual rights, and also the Patriot Act people will be vehemently in favor of “limited” deployments. They will define what is “limited” in the same sense they have defined what is “necessary.” I am not a conspiracy theorist. I just follow the dotted lines. 

  12. dalexander
    May 28, 2013

    @Sparky…I guess you sleep with both eyes open. It isn't hard to “see” what you are saying and where this implementation may lead in the hands of both governement and rogue parties. It will be interesting to see what personal anti-drone technology will be introduced that will help us slow down the inevitable. Anti-drone laser guided missles the size of pencils so you can keep a pocketfull on hand? I suspect if that were to happen, the bird population would drop significantly. 🙂

  13. William K.
    May 28, 2013

    Taking weapons away from all criminals will be the only way to make disarming the populace even slightly non-stupid. Unless there can be a policeperson on site in less than thirty seconds, I reserve the option of protecting myself. Just because you choose to be helpless does not mean that I should choose to be helpless. 

    And for snoopy drones, I don't need a dangerous rocket powered intercepter. It is much simpler to either blind the drone with a 10 watt laser or shoot it down with an 800FPS 2 ounce “spitwad”. The spitwad is old newspaper soaked in water in a small plastic bag. At 800 FPS it would shatter most drones. And it launches with compressed air.

  14. prabhakar_deosthali
    May 29, 2013

    A simple way to protect one's house from a drone surveillance could be to have your own drone circling your house premises 24×7.

    This drone could intercept and jam all kind of surveillance attempts made on your property and in case of attempted intrusion, would even destroy the intruder.


    So I expect a kind of Star Wars to happen over American skies by 2020.

  15. Ravenwood
    May 29, 2013

    Q : “Would anyone prefer to live in the 18th century?”

    A: What I prefer is to live in a technologically liberal 21st century that exercised respect for our 18th century Constitution. I find them perfectly compatible, with no need to surrender one for the other.

    – Sparky

  16. Ravenwood
    May 29, 2013

    Douglas : I guess you sleep with both eyes open. It isn't hard to “see” what you are saying and where this implementation may lead in the hands of both governement and rogue parties. It will be interesting to see what personal anti-drone technology will be introduced that will help us slow down the inevitable. 

    Sparky : Virtually all of the technology used by the government was developed and produced by it's citizens. Keeping that technology out of the hands of interested citizens — rogue or otherwise — will continue to be difficult.

    As for DIY anti-drone technology, I'm not a fan of high-speed spitballs, laser pens or focused energy-beam weapons. You have to aim spitballs and laser dots, and hitting a dragonfly drone with either fails the KISS principle. And energy beam weapons will interest the ATF or other agencies as an Infernal Device.

    As an Amatuer Radio operator (among other enthusiasms) I understand the theory of a properly tuned RF blast. While we aren't supposed to know exact frequencies we certainly know the drone band allotments. And the cirscumstance that drone communications are digital and encrypted doesn't matter: The intent isn't to listen-in, only to jam. And anyonie can jam: With 100 to 1,000 watts of modulation-rich transmission and a stealthy stick antenna, anyone can effecctively cut-off a drone purposed to realtime control and surveillence. If it's controlled by RF it can be jammed. If it's transmitting RF it can be detected.

    So I sleep well Douglas, thanks, and trust you do likewise.

    – Sparky

  17. ahdand
    May 29, 2013

    @Sparky: I too want to live in a world which has technology.

  18. dalexander
    May 29, 2013

    @Sparky…Do you think we will see home drone kits at hobby shops and on the internet? I can see a modular configuration where the drone is optioned with various sensors that fit into a multipin universal connector and mount. That is to say, we may soon see a new product offering populating the home goods supply chain. That would drive electronics demand and depending upon the popularity of cool DIY drones, those kits may be offered through distributors like Jameco Electronics. Jameco already sells DIY robots. Can you hear it now? Daddy, I want an F-16 drone option for my Google Glasses for Christmas.

  19. Himanshugupta
    May 29, 2013

    @William, i do not know whether you are serious about shooting down drones. It will be a criminal offense to shoot down any flying object as they will not fly without government permissions and even though we may own the house and land but the airspace about the house still belong to the government.

  20. Ravenwood
    May 29, 2013

    Douglas : Do you think we will see home drone kits at hobby shops and on the internet?

    Sparky : It depends on how one defines “drone”. Early drones were tethered to manned aircraft. Drones soon evolved to remote radio control guidance (R/C). Fast-forward to today and we find a large, well-establsihed R/C hobbyist community. And by R/C I don't just mean radio controlled model aeroplanes: There are R/C jets capable of remarkable speeds, R/C helicopters capable of remarkable payloads, R/C boats, R/C hovercraft and even R/C rocketry.

    The most recent evolution for the drone is pre-programmed missions, where the drone at some point leaves human control and travels out & back autonomously. I do not see that capability being allowed by the FAA or FCC for civilian use, nor local law enforcement (other than as a failsafe in the event of signal loss or interference).

    Given the enhanced capabilities of R/C hobbyist aircraft, I would argue that remotely controlled civilian drones are already here and mission-ready.

    – Sparky ?

  21. dalexander
    May 29, 2013

    @All…we need to take this rhetoric down a notch or two. Nobody is going to shoot down anything. Jamming is a technique that functions by saturating the receiver circuitry with an overload of power. It is sort of like looking straight into a really bright flashlight. You don't see anything because your vision receptors are overloaded. The same is true for radar jamming devices. through enough power at them and you saturate them into uselessness. Let's get back to supply chain ramifications and enjoy the possibilities of an expanded market while we are losing our privacy.

  22. William K.
    May 29, 2013

    The assumption that a drone is a government owned device and the assertion that a home made protection system is somehow unauthorized would seem to me to belong more in a nation known for having a lot more government control, like, perhaps, North Korea. Not to be critical of them in this instance, but there certainly comes a time when one must swat flies, as it were. These days anybody can purchase a snoopy hovercraft style drone, and fly it with their smartphone while viewing the images it sends back. Does anybody feel that sort of activity should be seriously protected? Except for California and parts of the east coast, does anybody think that local law enforcement agencies have nothing batter to do than chase down such craft? If it gets close enough to be squirted by my hose while washing my car, it may get wet. Is that really a problem? Is it any body else's business where I scratch when I itch?

  23. Tom Murphy
    May 29, 2013

    William:  Aside from the gratuitous dig at California and parts of the East Coast (I've lived in NY and Calif my whole life), I find myself mostly in agreement with you. I would LIKE to think the authorities don't have much time for snooping, except there seems to be a whole lot of snoopin' going on.   The US government:

    –listens to all international phone calls

    –snooped on journalists emails

    –targeted right wing groups for auditing

    …need I go on?

    I believe the Fourth Amendment would apply to drones as well as it does to those who would intrude on your phone calls, emails, and political affiliations. And whether it takes a garden hose or something else, I believe Americans would fight to hold onto their privacy rights.

  24. Tom Murphy
    May 29, 2013

    Douglas: I'd like to think you're right about how “nobody is going to shoot anything down,” but I'm constantly surprised what some idiots will do with all the guns floating around our society.  Disproportionate response seems to be fairly common. 

    But I'm not sure what any of this has to do with keeping the electronics supply chain running smoothly.  Can anyone explain that, please?

  25. William K.
    May 29, 2013

    Tom, My comment was indeed influenced by the datelines on quite a few articles over the past few years. Clearly not all fit the profile, but the great number of news articles point to a concentration in some states. Of course, correlation certainly does not prove causation, but it does show a concentration.

  26. Mr. Roques
    May 29, 2013

    Have you heard about Matternet? I have a friend working there and they have a very innovative solution using drones to deliver medicine and other urgent supplies. They proved the concept in Haiti and Dominican Republic, and they probably want to do trials in Africa. 

  27. Tom Murphy
    May 29, 2013

    Thanks William.  Keep in mind that most of the US population lives along the two coasts, and most media organizations (of all political stripes) are based in NY, Washington and California.  That said, there are parts of California or upstate NY that could easily be mistaken for South Dakota or Texas — and vice versa. I know. I've worked in them.

  28. dalexander
    May 29, 2013

    @Mr. Roques…Thanks! Here is the video link:

  29. ahdand
    May 30, 2013

    Thank you the link looks very interesting.      

    May 30, 2013

    I think this is a great idea provided there is no law against shooting down unmanned drones.  Don't they look like flying turkeys anyhow?

  31. dalexander
    May 30, 2013

    @Flyingscot…how about trying to pop one of these. A surveillance hummingbird… With video,32068,1281633027001_2099853,00.html

  32. William K.
    May 30, 2013

    Mr. Roques, that sounds like a real life-saving application for the drones. I had not thought about the smaller ones serving to deliver urgent cargo like that. It is a brilliant idea, no doubt.

    But now I wonder how long it will be until the Mexican drug cartels start using drones for smuggling. A ground hugging remotely piloted vehicle could certainly elude everything except radar, and we would need the cooperation of the Mexican authorities to shoot them down before they crossed our border. Of course, if we could see them on radar we could certainly shoot them down with our anti-missile laser systems. That might work very well, based on the video that I saw recently.

  33. dalexander
    May 30, 2013

    @William…I see a potential job market here with new hires for border patrol/skeet shooters.

  34. William K.
    May 30, 2013

    Douglas, can you imagine attempting to shoot at a 50 foot drone at 30 feet altitude flying 400MPH? That is where the computer directed laser that I just saw would be needed.

  35. dalexander
    May 31, 2013

    @William…Either that or a machine gun nest on your roof 🙂

  36. Ravenwood
    May 31, 2013

    TOM : “But I'm not sure what any of this has to do with keeping the electronics supply chain running smoothly. Can anyone explain that, please?”

    SPARKY : Maybe the title “30,000 Drones May Watch Americans by 2020 ” should have read “30,000 Drones Will Need Smooth Running Supply Chain” .

  37. Mr. Roques
    May 31, 2013

    ha! I hadn't thought about that… but yeah, there's a real possibility that they are looking into drone technology as well. It can also deliver things to prisons, etc.

    If you're interested, I can try to get a hold of the people @ Matternet. 

  38. Hailey Lynne McKeefry
    May 31, 2013

    This is interesting stuff… I'll be watching to see how it evolves. The American culture is quite unused to be monitored in this way, and i suspect many may object to it as it arises. There are other countries, though, where surveillance is common. In fact, London has been touted to be the most surveilled city in the world with cameras on almost every street in the city. The balance between security and privacy is critical… a really important conversatoin to bring up again and again. Thanks!

  39. William K.
    May 31, 2013

    Douglas, I was referencing about the challenge that the DEA would have if those Mexican drug carteles started flying their stuff in using drones. Of course I suspect that any small plane could fly just a few feet off of the ground and ride below standard radar. I know that some pilots could dump napalm  from a very low altitude at a very fast speed and avoid getting shot. So some sort of plane could do that, but dropping a load to the correct recipients could be a real challenge at a few hundred MPH. I think that some of our navy pilots could do it, though. An interesting topic for idle speculation.

  40. SunitaT
    August 7, 2013

    Drones can read license plates, spot body heat at night, or recognize faces. In 2009, police in Austin launched a bird-size drone called the Wasp over a drug suspect's house beforehand sending in a SWAT team. Real estate agents have already used drones to photograph for-sale properties, and in the future, the devices could be used to monitor oil pipelines, dust crops, or snap paparazzi photos of celebrities.

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