Could drones have found Boston suspects sooner?

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As police comb the city for the surviving Boston Marathon bomber, speculation is now turning to whether the surviving suspect might already be in custody if surveillance drones were blanketing the sky overhead.

Popular Science magazine earlier this week released “Five ways drones could help in a disaster like the Boston Marathon bombing,” explaining in detail how various unmanned aerial systems might have given police the resources they need to find 19-year-old Dzhokhar A. Tsarnaev much faster.

The article, for example, discussed how small drones known as “quadrotors” could “provide a wealth of video coverage, spying on rooftops and moving in fearlessly to document a blast zone.”

But the notion isn’t just coming from magazines or from the technology community. The drone industry itself has used the Boston bombings, which claimed three lives and wounded more than 160 on Monday afternoon, to showcase the benefits of its products.

“Whether it is in response to a natural disaster or a tragedy like we saw in Boston, [drones] can be quickly deployed to provide first-responders with critical situational awareness in areas too dangerous or difficult for manned aircraft to reach,” said Michael Toscano, president of the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International, in an interview with U.S. News earlier this week.

As the industry’s leading trade group, AUVSI has launched an intensive public relations effort to convince a skeptical American public that drones can be used for much more than just firing missiles or snooping into someone’s home. Disaster relief and the tracking of dangerous criminals are among the many positive uses highlighted by drone proponents, a group that includes Federal Aviation Administration head Michael Huerta. He told Congress earlier this week that there are plenty of “beneficial uses” for drones, citing weather and environmental research, the surveying of coastlines and others as examples.

But Americans remain fearful that law enforcement agencies will abuse drone technology, and that fear is leading to concrete legislation to curb its use.

Florida recently banned police use of drones except in very specific circumstances; Virginia is still considering similar measures. Seattle police abandoned plans to use drones after a large public outcry and pressure from city officials.

As of last year, the Boston Police Department had maintained that it was not using drones.

Federal agencies, such as the Department of Homeland Security, do employ drones to monitor the U.S.-Mexico border. But there has been no indication that federal authorities are using drones in the Boston manhunt.

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