Welcome to the Fake City Where Homeland Security Tests Its Drones

By Alissa Walker on at

Does America's Homeland Security have a sense of humour? This is Liberty City, the Grand Theft Auto inspired “urban obstacle course” where the department tests drones for potential public safety applications.

Thanks to documents acquired through a FOIA request by MuckRock, we finally have more details about Homeland Security’s Robotic Aircraft for Public Safety (RAPS) program. Americans first caught wind of the program after a 2012 public call to drone manufacturers was posted by the DHS. What happened after that?

According to these documents, the department ended up trying out drones made by Lockheed Martin, AeroVironment, and Aurora, and have been testing them in a place nicknamed Liberty City for the past three years. Since 2012, they’ve been evaluated for disaster response scenarios, law enforcement patrols, search and rescue, and potentially monitoring large public events.

Where can Homeland Security fly its drones in peace? They took them to Ft. Sill, a US Army training centre in Oklahoma, where a cluster of purpose-built infrastructure serves as a backdrop for simulated procedures:

Evaluations for the RAPS program leverage Liberty City’s mix of buildings and storage containers to test each drone’s ability to distinguish bystanders from assailants, track fleeing suspects and scan urban scenes for items of interest.

Tests at Liberty City thus simulate active shooter, hostage, or bomb threat situations where a SWAT team or other specialised squad requires accurate, real-time intelligence. Scenarios at other sites evaluate drone systems’ abilities to spot people in wooded terrain, zero-in on the source of a fire, or detect radiation.

While the RAPS project isn’t classified, this is the most information that we’ve had so far about how the program is using its drones and how they perform in the field (even though the documents released so far are heavily redacted).

You can read the whole report over at MuckRock, which includes the following illustration of the hypothetical near-future when Homeland Security could be operating its drones over every aspect of our urban lives. Liberty City, indeed!

Welcome to the Fake City Where Homeland Security Tests Its Drones

[MuckRock]