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Thursday, June 19, 2014

A South African Company is Selling Armed, "Riot Control" Drones

The BBC reports:

The maker of a drone that fires pepper spray bullets says it has received its first order for the machine. 
South Africa-based Desert Wolf told the BBC it had secured the sale of 25 units to a mining company after showing off the tech at a trade show. 
It is marketing the device as a "riot control copter" that can tackle crowds "without endangering the lives of security staff". 
. . .

Desert Wolf's website states that its Skunk octacopter drone is fitted with four high-capacity paintball barrels, each capable of firing up to 20 bullets per second. 
In addition to pepper-spray ammunition, the firm says it can also be armed with dye-marker balls and solid plastic balls. 
The machine can carry up to 4,000 bullets at a time as well as "blinding lasers" and on-board speakers that can communicate warnings to a crowd.
Would drone regulations in the United States permit the use of such drones?

Most states that have enacted or are proposing drone regulations include provisions that broadly ban the use of weaponized drones. For example, Oregon's recently enacted drone laws criminalize the use of weaponized drones. Proposed laws in California (here, and here), Massachusetts, and Rhode Island contain similar restrictions.

These restrictions would almost certainly criminalize the use of these riot control drones. Even if the weapons on the drones are designed to be non-lethal, the prohibitions on weaponized drones are usually broadly stated, and prohibit the addition of devices that allow a drone to cause harm beyond the usual risk of it colliding with somebody. The broad language of restrictions on weaponized drones would probably also require legislators to revise drone laws to permit these otherwise illegal tactics by police officers and other government officials.

When I first saw state laws permitting the use of weaponized drones, I didn't think that they were a bad idea, but I thought that they would have little practical impact. But with companies like Desert Wolf getting into the business of armed drones, perhaps these laws are more important than I initially thought.

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