December 10, 2013
The FBI began experimenting with drones in 1995, but didn’t view them as a viable option for video surveillance until a full decade later. Since then, however, the agency appears to have slowly but steadily moved forward in building its drone program. Now, details of that program have been revealed in a series of recently released documents sent to Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW), an advocacy group that issued a Freedom of Information Act request in June. Though CREW was interested in learning what company provided the FBI’s drones and where the purchases’ funding came from, that information is largely redacted. Even so, the documents do reveal quite a bit about the program’s development, including how the FBI has been using drones and what it plans to do with them in the future.
The documents show that the FBI’s first operational drone deployment was in October, 2006. Drone use was “limited over the next four years,” the documents read, noting that funding issues and compliance with Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) regulations were major limiting factors. While the FBI’s Technical Response Unit oversaw its drone program at first, the program was transferred to its Video Surveillance Unit in 2009, at which point drone “inventory and missions began to increase.” The documents suggest that this wasn’t so much a matter of the new unit utilizing them more, but that agents began to better understand what drones were capable of.