The drones are coming and they’re coming for you

Phil Madsen | April 18, 2012

I learned today more about the civilian use of remotely piloted aircraft (drones) in U.S. airspace. Learned by listening to this NPR program while driving.

Diane and I drove overnight last night on a run that picked up in Greater Los Angeles and is going to Oklahoma. We have time to spare on this one because delivery cannot be completed until the consignee opens for business tomorrow.

When Diane’s driving shift ended around 2:00 a.m. this morning, I could have stayed in bed but chose instead to get up and drive. It was a chance to do that nighttime desert driving that I absolutely love to do. The day will come when we leave trucking for one reason or another. When it does, nighttime desert driving will be near the top of the list of things I miss.

On such drives I often leave the radio and iPod turned off, preferring to be alone with my thoughts instead. This evening I left the radio on after catching the news at the top of the hour. The tee-up about drone aircraft caught my interest.

These things are catching on fast. They are getting smaller, more sophisticated and affordable. If every police department, farmer, fire fighter, utility company, news organization, search and rescue team, researcher, paparazzi, private investigator, meteorologist, photographer and hobbyist gets one that wants one, we will soon have thousands of these things in the air and some of them will be watching you.

Truckers in general and certain expediters in particular are accustomed to being watched. Our trucks are physically searched when we pick up and deliver freight in sensitive locations. We are sometimes searched when crossing the border on loads going into and out of Canada. Some of those searches are so thorough that an officer will go through every cabinet and container in your truck, including your shower bag, laundry bag, toilet kit and even opening food containers in your refrigerator.

We log every minute of every day, whether we are on the job or not, to report our duty status (off duty, in sleeper, driving, on duty not driving) and the location of the truck. Electronic devices in the truck (Qualcomm units and other such devices) also monitor and report what the truck is doing. When they are wired into the truck’s electronic control module, these devices can report in real time the truck’s speed, engine statistics and more.

Every fuel stop is documented when our fuel card is used. Miles driven in each state are monitored and reported for fuel tax purposes. Our trucks are photographed and time stamped at toll plazas. EZ-Pass and PrePass transponder readers mark our locations and times too.

Cameras are used at scales and other locations to catch truckers who are not wearing their seat belts. In a few states, the truck is photographed when entering the state. Hundreds of miles later at a scale house, a computer will do the math and tell the officer if you got there too fast. if you did, a speeding ticket is issued.

At scale houses in all states and anywhere on the road, trucks and drivers are subject to inspection. Equipment is checked, sometimes by officers who crawl under the truck with flashlights and rulers. Log books and registrations are checked, as are our medical cards that show our DOT-required medical examinations are up to date (even our bodies are inspected from time to time). We can be ordered at any time into a clinic to give urine samples for drug screening purposes.

As if that was not enough, here come the drones. Very soon, a DOT drone pilot will be able to sit in a chair in an office building — probably near his or her state capitol so the technology can be easily shown off to legislators who will be hit up for funding to buy more drones  — and use an eye in the sky to monitor thousands of trucks a day, anywhere trucks can be seen, where a scale cop on the ground in a fixed location would only see hundreds a day in a place where truckers know they will be seen.

With drones in the air, flatbed loads can be inspected to make sure straps were properly used. If a violation is seen, the drone can be maneuvered to get a photo of the driver. Facial recognition software can match that driver to the photo on his CDL (driver’s license). A photo of the illegally secured load will be kept on file. On the strength of that evidence a citation can be issued and mailed to the driver’s home. Trucks going out of route to bypass scales will be as visible to the DOT as if they went through.

With drones, speeding tickets can be issued anywhere in the state by troopers seated in control rooms, as can tickets for failure to maintain your lane, being off a truck route, tailgating, hand-held cell phone use and more.

The thermal imaging capability drones have can be used to see how many people are in the truck and where exactly they are (sleeper, driver or passenger seat, or in the box when illegal’s are being smuggled). Heat signatures from the wheels can be studied to detect a wheel brake that is not working or a tire is under inflated.

The same technology can be used to identify parked trucks that are idling in states where idling is prohibited. Cops will no longer have to catch the truck in the act. The drone will do that. Environmental police will simply go to the trucks that are on the list printed out in patrol car and hand out tickets at $350 a pop (offsetting the cost of the drone and proving its worth to those who will be asked for funding to buy more).

Now, four-wheelers (non-truckers), before you get all excited about the wonderful public safety benefits these drones can produce by focusing on trucks, note that they can focus on cars too. As these things populate the sky, you will be just as likely as we are to receive tickets in the mail for hand-held cell phone use, texting, speeding, seat belt violations, etc.

Cars parked in front of bars at closing time can be targeted for observation by drones around closing time. The same facial recognition software that is in use now to check commercial drivers for multiple CDL’s can be used with drones to see if the person driving a car has a valid license.

Are you parked 15 minutes too long in a two-hour parking place? Busted you are by the car-size helicopter drone that patrols the city streets, and your ticket is coming in the mail.

You say it was not you who lit up a cigarette in a California city park where outdoor smoking is prohibited? The air quality police beg to differ. At 14:27:16 today, a drone detected the heat signature of you lighting up and a photograph was taken. “Here’s your citation, Sir,” says the helmeted cop who rode up to you on a green bicycle, “Have a nice day.”

  • Gordon A

    Phil
    This is so close to becoming a reality it is down right scary.
    Our rights to privacy are slowly being eroded one technical advancement at a time.

    There certainly is a need for some persons to be observed from afar but spying on every one for the sole purpose of building a data bank should not be the purpose.
    I believe it is going to be.
    In a few years from now mandatory DNA testing at scales or Clinics not unlike todays Random Drug testing will be required.
    If technology is in the wrong hands or used for the wrong reasons this country is going to be in dire straights in the near future..

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