photo courtesy of u.s. army corps of engineers
photo courtesy of u.s. army corps of engineers

BY JIM DOOLEY – State plans to fly unmanned aerial surveillance drones over Hawaii harbors are now “under review” by Gov. Neil Abercrombie’s administration, a spokesman for the Department of Transportation says.

Approval of drone surveillance was given during the ”previous administration” but now “every significant expenditure and operational practice is under review including the UAV (unmanned aerial vehicle) portion of this project,” said newly-hired DOT spokesman Dan Meisenzahl.

A $1.4 million contract to upgrade Honolulu harbor surveillance, awarded in 2009, is financed primarily through a U.S. Department of Homeland Security grant program administered by the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

Last year FEMA made $288 million available – down $100 million from  previous years – to protect critical ports around the country from terrorist attacks.

Seven port areas on the East and West Coasts and in Louisiana were designated “high risk” by FEMA and qualified for $172.8 million in grants.

Hawaii is in a second priority group of ports eligible for $86.4 million in grants.

Details of the port security program can be found at:

http://www.fema.gov/government/grant/psgp/index.shtm

Although Hawaii’s drone plan is being re-assessed, the state has taken initial steps to seek necessary federal approval to deploy the UAV’s, which use high-technology cameras to scan and track ground activity, Meisenzahl said.

“The DOT has taken the first step in this process. It is part of the contractor’s obligation to assemble all of the necessary paperwork,” Meisenzahl said.

A $1.46 million contract was awarded to Hawaiya Technologies in 2009 to install a state-of-the-art surveillance system at Honolulu and Kalaeloa harbors and the work is now 80 per cent complete, according to Meisenzahl.

Start of the work was delayed because “a required electrical power source was found to be inadequate for the project,” but that issue has been resolved and the work is scheduled to be complete in April, according to Meisenzahl.

A second non-bid contract, worth $967,438, was awarded last week to Hawaiya Technologies to install the same security system at Kahului Harbor on Maui, according to DOT.

Use of UAV’s is not planned on Maui, said Meisenzahl, although earlier plans submitted by Hawaiya said az rone would be used there for “extended range surveillance.”

The company has proposed installation of the system at Big Island and Kauai harbor facilities.

Law enforcement agencies around the country are increasingly interested in using unmanned flying drones for surveillance and intelligence-gathering purposes.

The aircraft are far less expensive and intrusive than helicopters or piloted planes.

The Federal Aviation Administration is developing regulations for their use in national air space.

The American Civil Liberties Union has expressed concern about invasion of privacy issues raised by use of surveillance drones in other states and is monitoring the Hawaii plans.

“Use of ‘Unmanned Aerial Vehicles’ or ‘drones’ by law enforcement has a vast potential for abuse,” sad Daniel Gluck, senior staff attorney for ACLU Hawaii.

“The Hawaii Supreme Court has already ruled that warrantless infrared surveillance of people’s homes is an unconstitutional invasion of privacy.” Gluck said.

“The ACLU of Hawaii will monitor the details of this particular program (the kinds of technology used to perform the surveillance and the areas where it is used) to ensure it does not intrude on Hawaii residents’ and businesses’ protected privacy rights,” said Gluck.

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Jim Dooley joined the Hawaii Reporter staff as an investigative reporter in October 2010. Before that, he has worked as a print and television reporter in Hawaii since 1973, beginning as a wire service reporter with United Press International. He joined Honolulu Advertiser in 1974, working as general assignment and City Hall reporter until 1978. In 1978, he moved to full-time investigative reporting in for The Advertiser; he joined KITV news in 1996 as investigative reporter. Jim returned to Advertiser 2001, working as investigative reporter and court reporter until 2010. Reach him at Jim@hawaiireporter.com