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The Issue of Drone Spy Planes Used in the Christopher Dorner Manhunt

By Sarah Wilson    2/21/13

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As the country kept an ear out for the progress in apprehending fugitive Christopher Dorner last week, the subject of drone technology has come up on more than one occasion. Drone spy planes (or unmanned aerial vehicles) are aircraft that doesn’t have a human pilot manning its controls. The flight of the aircraft is controlled either autonomously by computers from within or is guided with the use of a remote control of a pilot who is on the ground (or in another aircraft). Packed with advanced technology and surveillance capabilities, the use of such aircraft raises many privacy issues.

Drone technology is used in aircraft that vary in size, shape, configurations, and features. Some look like hang-glider-like craft airplanes that people own as a hobby while others are much, much larger and scarier, in terms of capabilities. Besides issues of privacy, some people are also cautious about the use of 'spy planes' because of the threat of someone hacking into the computer system and using the aircraft for their own intentions.

In the case of Christopher Dorner, law enforcement officials may have used aerial spy drones, as well as increased drone surveillance along the Mexico border, as a way to locate the former LAPD officer accused of killing more than two people.

An unnamed senior police source first leaked the use of the drones to a British news outlet saying that certain drone-ready thermal imaging capabilities may assist in locating Dorner, who took to the cover of Big Bear Lake and relied on Naval reservist techniques to stay hidden for a brief time. Reports also alluded to the fact that Dorner had become the first human target for remotely-controlled airborne drones on United States soil, but there is conflicting information to suggest that this was not the first time. At least one source says that many people don't know that a drone was used during the hostage situation that recently took place in Alabama.

Representatives from the drone industry stated that if a drone had been used to apprehend Dorner, then lives may have been saved. The Federal Aviation Administration has been at odds with privacy advocates concerning the use of drones. The widespread use of drones has slowed as a result. A handful of government entities have additionally passed bills that would limit the use of drones in their jurisdictions. Others in favor of using drones believe this hurts the overall safety of the public.

Customs and Border Protection officials initially denied the reports that the LAPD used their drones to search for Dorner. However, later reports are conflicting. The director of the Unmanned Aerial Systems Integration Office at the FAA, Jim Williams, acknowledges the beneficial uses of drones, but also sees the public's concern over privacy. The data that the drones are capable of collecting does have a potential to fall into the wrong hands and become misused. Rights could easily become violated.

In the end, Dorner allegedly shot two police officers during the standoff – killing one. When the cabin that Dorner had been holed up in was burned to the ground, human remains identified as the fugitive were found and later identified as Christopher Dorner. His motives for the shooting spree were directed at his anger towards the LAPD regarding racial discrimination and his attempt to reveal corrupt practices.

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