The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives, referred to colloquially as the ATF, is a prohibition-era law enforcement division charged with investigating crimes related to the trade of alcohol, tobacco, firearms, and explosives, despite the fact that three of those categories now pertain to clearly-legal products. According to a report by the Department of Justice‘s inspector general, the ATF took cues from the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the National Security Agency and attempted to get in on the surveillance-of-US-citizens business, but gave up after the drones it ordered from contractors at a cost of $600,000 failed to meet advertised technical capabilities, rendering them useless for surveillance missions.

The inspector general’s report stated, “ATF officials told us that they acquired these [unmanned aircraft systems] to provide video surveillance that could integrate with other surveillance platforms and equipment already in use… ATF officials reported that ATF never flew its UAS in support of its operations because TOB testing and pilot training revealed a series of technological limitations with the UAS models it had acquired. In particular, ATF determined the real-time battery capability for one UAS model lasted for only about 20 minutes even though the manufacturer specified its flight time was 45 minutes. ATF determined that the other two models of UAS acquired also were unreliable or unsuitable for surveillance. One UAS program manager told us ATF found that one of its smaller UAS models, which cost nearly $90,000, was too difficult to use reliably in operations. Furthermore, the TOB discovered that a gas-powered UAS model, which cost approximately $315,000 and was specified to fly for up to 2 hours, was never operable due to multiple technical defects.”

The Washington Times notes that the drone program was subsequently scrapped. However, this did not stop the ATF from spending $15,000 more on five additional drones following the cancellation of the program. Those drones were used “to conduct one brief UAS flight in July 2014 to document the aftermath of a Louisiana apartment fire that resulted in the deaths of three residents” before “[ATF officials] became aware that they were required to obtain an FAA COA before operating UAS” leading them to ground “their UAS until they obtained further clarification and guidance on deployment requirements.” The inspector general said that “[ATF] should have communicated its decision to suspend UAS activities across the entire agency” to avoid wasting the additional $15,000 on five more useless drones.

The inspector general concluded, “Although the OIG did not specifically audit ATF’s UAS contracts, we are troubled that the process ATF used to purchase these UAS resulted in ATF spending approximately $600,000 on UAS models it ultimately determined to have significant mechanical and technical problems that rendered them unsuitable to deploy in support of ATF operations. Therefore, we recommend that ATF direct responsible officials to perform a thorough needs analysis regarding the potential UAS capabilities it requires that ensures the best approaches to procure UAS prior to restarting future UAS acquisition activity.”

The report also pointed out the fact that the FBI has used drones in 13 different missions so far, “including search-and-rescue operations, kidnappings, fugitive manhunts, national security missions and anti-drug trafficking interdictions.”

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