Nobody Saw THAT Coming: US Border Patrol Wants to (Non-Lethally) Arm Drones

Given the post 9/11 trend to militarize domestic law enforcement, this news from the Atlantic Wire should surprise absolutely no one.

Documents obtained by the Electronic Frontier Foundation from the Department of Homeland Security’s Customs and Border Patrol indicate that the agency is close to finalizing payload standards for its drone aircraft. Among the things the CBP might want to use in its unmanned aircraft: “non-lethal weapons designed to immobilize” targets.

This *technically* wouldn’t contradict Eric Holder’s letter to Congress earlier this year about targeted drone strikes in the US because, in theory, the drones would carry a non-lethal payload. That said, let us remember that despite being marketed as “non-lethal” law enforcement weapon, tasers have been tied to a number of deaths.

The real question is, if this goes forward (and it most likely will), how soon until this technology “trickles down” to local law enforcement units?

Update (7/3/2013) – I suggest jumping down to the comment below by Andy for an alternate take on this topic. His suggestion is that these armed drone are intended for dealing with drug transporters versus illegal immigration.

FILED UNDER: Borders and Immigration, Crime, Law and the Courts, Science & Technology, US Politics, , , , , , ,
Matt Bernius
About Matt Bernius
Matt Bernius is a design researcher working to create more equitable government systems and experiences. He's currently a Principal User Researcher on Code for America's "GetCalFresh" program, helping people apply for SNAP food benefits in California. Prior to joining CfA, he worked at Measures for Justice and at Effective, a UX agency. Matt has an MA from the University of Chicago.


  1. legion says:

    That said, let us remember that despite being marketed as “non-lethal” law enforcement weapon, tasers have been tied to a number of deaths.

    It’s the classic psychological issue that’s gotten so many people into tragedies in recent years: just because something is described as a “non-lethal” weapon, that doesn’t mean it _can’t_ be used to kill someone – just that it’s not _designed_ to kill. By any moral or legal standard, this should violate Holder’s letter.

  2. JWH says:

    In lieu of weapons, they should load up the drones with recordings of famous American music, including “Achey-Breaky Heart,” “Call Me Maybe,” Jessica Black’s “Friday,” an audio recording of Al Gore reading Earth in the Balance, and the entire Barry Manilow catalog. When somebody is caught sneaking into the United States, the drone dives toward the person, then plays the music extremely loudly.

    I guarantee our border will be secure within a week.

  3. Rob in CT says:

    The Border Patrol has manned aircraft as well, yes? Are those armed with “non-lethal” weapons? If so, how’s that been going? If not, hmm, why the change?

    I, too, am frustrated by the apparently reckless use of tasers, as if they’re harmless.

  4. merl says:

    Drones armed with glue guns would be pretty cool.

  5. JWH says:


    And Batarangs. Gotta have Batarangs.

  6. stonetools says:

    The current Senate immigration bill is a virtual bonanza of spending on military style equipment for ICE. I expect the House bill to be even more so.
    Once the drones are deployed, I expect that the call will go out for them to be upgraded to “nonlethal weaponry” like tear gas, rubber bullets, and sonic weapons, in order to deter would be “illegals” from fleeing from the drones. After all, what’s the point of using drones to spot an illegal entering the country if the drone cannot somehow deter such an illegal from continuing his journey across the border? Makes sense, amirite?
    And if the drones can be used against illegals, why not for crowd control? Or against liquor store bandits, a la Rand Paul? ….

  7. @JWH:
    *shudder* That sounds more terrifying than the Stuka’s “Jericho Trumpet”.

  8. michael reynolds says:

    I’m pretty sure we already had this discussion as a nation. Probably around 1910 when suddenly police were armed with a terrifying new tool: the automobile.

    These “automobiles” would be used to ferry armed agents at blistering speed (20 mph) thus enabling police officers to crush all freedom and bring on the Big Brother state that Orwell would prophesy. . . 38 years later.

    People, a drone is just a tiny little airplane. It’s not magic or super or even futuristic. I had a “drone” when I was twelve. (It looked like a P-51, very cool.) Six months after the first border drone shows up there’ll be an iPhone app to let you track drones.

  9. edmondo says:

    There’s a military-industrial complex that needs to be fed. Obama hasn’t said “No” to it in 5 years, why start now?

  10. Ben Wolf says:

    @michael reynolds: Yeah, and as we well know, the police love brutalizing people with any new toy they can get their hands on. They do not need armed drones.

  11. Matt Bernius says:

    @michael reynolds:
    To be clear, my issue *isn’t* with using drones to patrol the border. That makes a lot of sense.

    My issue is with using *armed drones* to patrol the border. And with the continued push towards aggressive use of “non-lethal” weaponry with has real potential to cause serious bodily harm.

  12. michael reynolds says:

    @Ben Wolf:

    Have you been brutalized by the police?

    Yeah, me neither. Traffic stop the other day, the cop let me go despite the expired registration and the speeding. Apparently he was shocked that I just calmly admitted to both. And you may say, “Well, you’re a well-off, older white male.” And yeah, that obviously helps.

    But I was a 20-something punk when I was arrested and hauled off the jail. The arresting officers were perfectly proper. The jailers were decent. The intake guy was a sheriff IIRC correctly and we discussed where he could buy an S-curve roll-top desk.

    And there were numerous incidents when I was working in restaurants where I’d call the cops and never saw brutality. Plus, oh, we got pulled over once as suspected drug mules. We let the guy look in the trunk. No beat-down.

    All-in-all probably 20 interactions with cops in 20 different jurisdictions, and no violence. Not even any cursing.

    Which is not to say that there aren’t cases, lots of them, and particularly when minorities are involved. But your generalization goes more to your seemingly growing paranoia than to reality.

  13. michael reynolds says:

    @Matt Bernius:

    I would agree cops are too quick with the Taser in many cases. There’s probably some re-training called for in some departments. And some departments may be more generally trigger-happy. This case being an example perhaps.

    But as for non-lethally armed drones, I guess I don’t see why it’s better to have an unarmed drone that then summons armed officers. Again, see above link. The drone will have cameras on and each event will be taped.

  14. Andy says:

    Well, first things first: A lot depends on the “target.” If the “target” is a person, there is no such “non-lethal” weapon in existence. If the target is a vehicle or a boat, then there are some potential nonlethal disabling weapons which are on the drawing board and potentially could become reality one day.

    Secondly, I read most of the report and the “inside baseball” to me suggests that what this section is really talking about is probably disabling drug-running ships/boats. That is the most plausible case for an “immobilizing” weapon that could be delivered from an aircraft. A lot of the technologies in the document are clearly designed with ships mind – particularly the sentence which precedes the one about immobilizing weapons in the report says this:

    The addition of an Electronic Support Measures suite with specific emitter
    identification will increase mission effectiveness by enabling the UAS to
    independently perform the SDCIP Identification task.

    That is talking about passive detection and identification of radars and, perhaps, radio communications, both of which are common ways to track ships at sea. The aircraft will also have a radar imaging suite which is, again, useful for tracking large moving objects, not individuals. The CONOP figure on the next page (#64) of the report specifically discusses transit area operations at sea from forward locations (like Puerto Rico) for “targets” like shipwreck survivors, drug “go fast” boats and smugglers. As described, the platform would be very capable in supporting missions related to those kinds of events.

    So, I think this is much ado about very little. The “weapons” don’t exist and those that are plausible would be effective only at disabling vehicles and ships. “Tasering” people in the desert from 20k feet is both a fantasy and pointless.

  15. Matt Bernius says:

    Whoa, whoa, whoa Andy… Slow down.

    So if I’m reading you right, I posted a knee jerk post, on a topic that I don’t know a lot about, and didn’t bother to read through the supporting documentation?

    Today I officially became a blogger!

  16. Matt Bernius says:

    @michael reynolds:

    But as for non-lethally armed drones, I guess I don’t see why it’s better to have an unarmed drone that then summons armed officers

    Yeah, the thing is I have real issues with the current use of tasers by officers.

    My bigger issue — prior to Andy’s correction — was the idea of using nonlethal (i.e. incapacitating weapons) on people crossing the border in remote regions. Hard to imagine anything going wrong with that.

    Oh, and on the police brutality… yeah, I actually have a little recent first hand experience with that (as do a few friends). Nothing that left permanent marks, but definitely we experienced rougher treatment than our behavior warranted. I wouldn’t necessarily call it brutality (a la what happened to people during the civil rights movement), they definitely were showing (roughly) who had the power in that situation.

  17. Andy says:

    @Matt Bernius:

    I wasn’t intending to pick on you – this just falls into one of my areas of expertise, so I went a bit in depth.

  18. Matt Bernius says:

    No offense taken sir.

    I truly appreciate when someone with more experience can offer a different and more grounded perspective (hence the update to the article). That is exactly the sort of information sharing that needs to happen on a more regular basis.

  19. matt says:

    @michael reynolds: Drones have been patrolling the border for years. I live semi near to one of the bases they take off from..

    Having grown up near Chicago I can assure you police and brutality were commonly in the same sentence there.