Everything we know about the drones watching over Times Square on New Year’s Eve

Unmanned aerial vehicles operated by the NYPD will keep an eye on festivities.
Unmanned aerial vehicles operated by the NYPD will keep an eye on festivities.
Image: Reuters/Zoran Milich
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If weather permits, the New York City Police Department will fly drones over tonight’s New Year’s Eve celebration in Times Square, marking the first time that unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) have been used to patrol the skies at the annual event.

At a press briefing on Dec. 27, NYPD counterterrorism chief Martine Materasso outlined the extensive security measures that city police will be taking, bolstered by federal law enforcement partners that include the FBI. An estimated 1 million revelers will be kept safe by bomb-sniffing dogs, radiation-detection teams, heavy-weapons squads, police helicopters, counterterrorism boats, plainclothes cops, and drone detection and interdiction units.

“Obviously, drones are a great resource that provides a bird’s-eye view over a large area,” Joe Giacalone, a former NYPD detective sergeant who now teaches at New York City’s John Jay College of Criminal Justice, told Quartz. “When policing large crowds, they can spot areas where trouble might be brewing.”

The NYPD wanted to bring drones to last year’s Times Square celebration, but its UAVs were grounded by rain.

NYPD chief of department Terence Monahan confirmed that “drone mitigation protection”—i.e. defensive measures that can be used against other, unwanted drones—would also be utilized during this year’s festivities, but did not offer details on what that looks like. He told reporters that the NYPD has used such protection “on three or four different occasions here in New York City on major events,” and said the department is “working hand in hand to perfect this with our federal partners.”

The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) points out that various methods exist to “disrupt, disable, destroy, take control of, and/or provide alternate flight instructions” to a suspicious drone. There are signal jammers, designed to take over a suspicious drone’s controls and force it to the ground. Geofencing can render a drone unflyable in certain areas. Laser beams and radio waves can also be generated to disable enemy drones.

Some interdiction systems are designed to capture trespassing drones in a net, preserving the offending UAV as evidence.

In the Netherlands, police have even taught eagles to snatch drones out of the sky:

But most drone interdiction involves radio frequency (RF) jammers, which detect and interfere with a drone’s radio frequency emissions. Unfortunately, RF jammers aren’t universally effective.

“RF techniques are only effective against drones using RF, which is typical of clueless or careless operators flying where they shouldn’t be flying,” says Adam Robertson, co-founder and chief technology officer of airspace security company Fortem Technologies. “The real concern of law enforcement should be against drones used by terrorists. Terrorists don’t use drones that emit RF, but rather they use RF silent, or ‘dark drones’ that fly by GPS waypoints to predetermined locations.”

For all the advanced technology involved, drone interdiction continues to require some level of human judgement, according to the FAA.

“There are no nationally recognized standards for detection or classifying items of interest at this time; detection systems do not have the ability to determine intent or a level of threat posed by the [drone],” explains a fact sheet issued by the agency (pdf) earlier this year.

The NYPD’s drone fleet is overseen by its Technical Assistance Response Unit (TARU), and the UAVs themselves are operated by officers who have been trained and licensed as drone pilots. The department currently maintains 14 drones, made up of three distinct types:

A necessary tool—with necessary limits

In September, Yemen’s Iran-allied Houthi rebels claimed responsibility for an armed drone attack on Saudi Aramco’s Abqaiq refinery, the world’s largest oil-processing facility. The rebels also hit the Khurais oil field, a major site operated by Saudi Aramco. Both attacks sparked massive fires that could be seen from outer space.

At public gatherings such as the New Year’s Eve celebration in Times Square, the possibility of an active shooter, “unfortunately, demands…increasing technological capabilities to counter these threats,” says Dennis Franks, a retired FBI agent who spent time as a SWAT team commander.

“I believe the public’s concern about overreach by the government has lessened in public gathering situations because of the history of mass shootings and violence that is increasing at an alarming rate every year,” Franks told Quartz. “Appropriate surveillance—and it must not overreach or violate our civil liberties—is necessary to protect the public. The technology and capabilities provided by drones is tremendous when combined with competent analytical evaluation.”

While developing its drone program, the NYPD says it solicited feedback from other police departments, local legislators, and civil liberties organizations to create a set of guidelines that would preserve people’s privacy.

But while the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) acknowledges the department’s outreach regarding the use of “this highly invasive technology,” and says the NYPD “did make some changes based on our recommendations,” the organization remains “deeply concerned” about a possible chilling effect on free speech and improper surveillance of lawful protests.

“One bit of good news in the policy is that it specifically forbids equipping the drones with facial-recognition technology,” an ACLU lawyer wrote in a blog post last year. “But this good news is tempered by the fact that the policy does not forbid the department from going back and using this technology on the footage captured by the drones’ cameras. Facial recognition technology is incredibly invasive and prone to error, especially when trying to identify young people and people of color. Its use on drone footage, which could potentially capture the movements of hundreds of thousands of New Yorkers, poses a severe privacy risk.”

The NYPD’s drones can only be used for certain things, of which “traffic and pedestrian monitoring at large events” is one:

An NYPD spokesperson declined to provide further details as to why the department forbids the use of drones for traffic enforcement—something that is now being tested in Canada.

Planning for this year’s celebration in Times Square began on Jan. 1, 2019, according to NYC police commissioner Dermot Shea.

The department knows of “no specific credible threats” that might spook revelers, Shea told reporters.

“Still,” he said, “I’m going to ask that members of the public, as always, remain vigilant.”