By Christine Parthemore, Executive Director, The Center for Climate and Security
Late last week USA Today and Military Times reported that the Department of Defense (DoD) has used surveillance drones within U.S. borders in recent years. The Pentagon provided further detail to assure the public that most instances were in support of civil authorities as part of disaster response exercises or real-time operations, including the 2013 California wildfires and 2015-16 Mississippi and South Carolina floods.
Knowing the sensitivities involved with unmanned defense surveillance systems operating in American skies, DoD has launched a website highlighting the process by which these military assets can legally be called to assist in responding to domestic natural disasters, which climate experts expect to grow more frequent and intense across the United States.
This new evidence of their employment for natural disasters adds to the growing list of drones being used in climate change-related applications. Civilian and Navy scientists are using both aerial and underwater drones in the Arctic and Antarctic, and other regions, to monitor ice loss and other effects of the changing climate. The drones often fill data gaps left by terrestrial and satellite monitoring systems, which is important for developing superior understanding of changing operating environments. Additionally, though many countries are struggling to create balanced laws and rules regarding the private use of drones, farmers in the United States and globally are already using them for monitoring crop disease, severe weather damage, water needs, and other variables that are central to adapting agricultural systems as the climate changes.
As the Center for Climate and Security noted in 2013, we will continue to see more dual-use tools like drones being applied in both security and climate change missions. We’ll be watching closely for the cases in which drones and other high-utility but often-sensitive technologies are at the heart of climate and security issues converging.