Image by Kent Buckley
The Massachusetts State Police are shopping for a drone. It’s just a little drone, but the size shouldn’t fool you. According to documents obtained by DigBoston, commonwealth authorities are in the market for one heck of a sophisticated micromachine, one decked with real-time GPS mapping capabilities, a 30x digital video zoom, and seemingly every frill imaginable save for fuzzy dice to hang from the propellers.
The state’s description of exactly what they’re looking for sounds kind of like a gadget geek drew up a wishlist of surveillance bells and whistles. According to the official Request For Response (RFR), in order to meet the specifications, said drone must be able to “take off and land vertically,” “hover and stare while in the air,” have “automatic land and automatic takeoff capability,” and be capable of “a minimum flight time of no less than forty-five (45) minutes on a single battery with payload.” Furthermore, the new system must be able to operate in sustained winds of up to 40 mph and wind gusts of up to 60+ mph—all from “a standard Windows based tablet for the ground control station to mitigate integration risks.” And that’s just for starters. The request calls for 54 specific requirements, a few of which we thought to highlight on account of the potential threat they pose to civil liberties (all descriptions pulled directly from the Mass RFR)…
- The system must be able to target and hold visual feed on a defined target GPS position.
- The system must have the ability to integrate motion tracking solutions.
- The system must be able to identify and return GPS locations of any object in video feed in real-time.
- The air vehicle system, including control of air vehicle and control of camera, must be able to be operated by a single operator … A single operator must be able to control multiple air vehicles at the same time.
- System must be weather-proof and able to operate in both rain and snow.
- Camera must offer both Electro-Optical (EO) and Infrared (IR) on the same payload.
- Thermal IR must have a minimum resolution of 640x480px.
- Must be able to encrypt digital video stream.
- Photographs taken by aerial vehicle must be automatically geo-reference including date, time, and Global Positioning System (GPS) coordinates.
- System must have optional imaging payloads with a minimum of 30x optical zoom capabilities and a minimum of 18MP camera sensor with HD 1080p video.
- Must be able to multi-cast digital video out to multiple recipients such as a centralized command and control office, mobile devices, or computers over a digital network.
What does any of this mean? Put simply, this is a high-tech affair that will end with the state having real-time mapping and tracking capabilities (if they don’t already). Apparently not planned for use as just a survey device, the state’s new drone will be able to scan and record the landscape using its own proprietary navigation or by accessing Bing or Google maps. And talk about stealth: according to the RFR, the technology must “allow one single operator to provide non-stop aerial surveillance” while operating multiple drones simultaneously. Welcome to the world of whisper-quiet 24-7 supervision. As for implementation, the document states that a “typical operator must be able to be trained within four days.”
The Dig inquired with the commonwealth about whether the contract has been fulfilled; according to the state’s schedule, the deadline for quotes and bid responses was March 31, while the estimated notification of apparent successful bidders was April 2015, and the estimated contract start date was April 15, 2015. A state police spokesperson responded in an email:
We have received a response or responses from a vendor or vendors. The review and evaluation portion of the procurement process is ongoing, and thus we will not be releasing specific details at this point in the process. Obviously, then, no contract has yet been awarded. If a contract is awarded, or if a decision is made not to award a contract, in response to this RFR, we will release more specific information about the bid or bids received at that time.
Without access to the specs furnished by bidders, it’s hard to estimate the price for a custom bird like this one. The Dig has unearthed previous requests for drones by the state, but those documents are also short on cost specifics. A 30x video zoom capability isn’t quite CIA-caliber, but comparable unmanned aerial systems are regularly purchased by the US military, with base models hovering in the $75,000 range. At any rate, the kind of drone that Mass is looking for will likely cost a lot more, as the RFR states “the estimated value of purchase(s) resulting from this Bid is greater than $150,000.”
And when we say “drone,” we mean drone(s).
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