Game Of Drones: The Australian Federal Police Wants To Use UAVs For Domestic Surveillance

Between new national security laws and proposed data retention programs, Big Brother is watching closer than ever. The Australian Federal Police has hopped on the surveillance bandwagon in a big way, saying that it would love to use small drones for Aussie surveillance operations.

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In a submission to a Senate Inquiry into the Australian Defence Force’s use of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), the Australian Federal Police wrote about how it would benefit from the use of drones in co-operation with the ADF.

The AFP wrote in its submission that drug smugglers and other criminal groups are now getting wise to the surveillance tools used by Customs and the AFP. In one instance, a drug smuggling operation working to import precursor material into Australia via the Torres Strait actively ran counter-surveillance operations, successfully dodging Johnny Law for years before finally being caught.

“[During AFP Operation Alate] the AFP seized a sizeable quantity of precursors and firearms however, evidence gathered during the investigation revealed that this network had been in place for years, conducting regular smuggling operations across the Strait. The evidence also showed that the group monitored the location and movements of AFP, [Queensland Police], [Border Protection Command] and other government personnel, vessels and aircraft during its smuggling operations and took deliberate steps to misdirect overt surveillance assets.

As a of the group’s counter-surveillance result, the AFP had to let the operation run without surveillance and instead deploying officers into remote far-North Queensland in what it called a “calculated risk”. The AFP added that “the use of unmanned platforms during this operation would have significantly mitigated the risks and in future operations would present a viable alternative to the deployment of traditional law enforcement or border protection assets into remote areas”.

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The Federal Police added that drones would have helped to change the game in that instance like it has for so many state-based police forces already. It highlighted an operation by the NSW Police which saw officers and forensic teams search the landscape, also using thermal technology to find old wells where a body could have been dumped.

While the AFP admits it currently doesn’t have an Operator’s Certificate from the Civil Aviation and Safety Authority (read: a drone license), it has been conducting limited trials (with permission) using day and night surveillance cameras. Way back in 2011, the AFP purchased a Dragonflyer X4-ES drone. In 2013, it conducted another trial with three MD4-1000 drones capable of finding survivors or missing persons at night. It added in the submission that the use of drones by the Australian Defence Force during domestic operations would “be of benefit” to the AFP.

Ideally, the AFP would want to share any and all surveillance imagery from the ADF’s drones if it were to kick off a broader domestic surveillance program.

The submission raised potential issues about drones being intercepted and falling into the hands of the bad guys, but the AFP has brushed off concerns saying that the information gathered by drones is not likely to be operationally sensitive until it’s turned into intelligence.

In the lead up to the last Federal Election, the Coalition outlined in broad strokes its desire for a domestic drone program. The proposed program would cost $1.5 billion and see Triton UAVs flying coastline surveillance operations by 2018.

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