Washington, D.C. – U.S. Senator Rob Portman (R-Ohio) today released the latest example in a monthly series highlighting Washington’s wasteful spending during a time of record debt:

The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) spent about $600,000 on drones that it never used, according to a Department of Justice Office of the Inspector General report issued on March 24, 2015.

Mechanical and technical problems pervaded the six drones acquired by ATF to such an extent that they eventually gave the drones away without payment.

But ATF just couldn’t quit drones. A week later, another unit within ATF bought six more drones worth $15,000. That unit managed to use one of the drones a single time before all six were grounded pending further guidance from the ATF drone office.


“After wasting over half a million dollars on drones that it simply gave away to another agency, it is mind-boggling that the ATF turned right around and bought more,” said Portman. “With Washington’s mounting debt already exceeding $18 trillion, ATF should not be wasting taxpayer dollars on equipment it can’t use.”

The Inspector General’s report outlined the use of drones within the DOJ, highlighting FBI and ATF’s use of drones as particularly problematic.

ATF acquired six drones of three different models between September 2011 and September 2012 for use by its Special Operations Division. One model was ultimately only able to fly for about 20 minutes before its battery drained. A smaller drone that cost $90,000 was “too difficult to use reliably in operations,” according to the Inspector General’s report. The last model, a gas-powered drone costing $315,000, was apparently so plagued by problems that it was never operable at all.

In June 2014, the ATF Special Operations Division gave up on the drones and transferred them to the Naval Criminal Investigative Service at no cost. The report did not mention whether ATF warned NCIS that it was receiving useless drones. 

Less than a week later, ATF’s National Response Team bought five commercially available drones for $15,000. One of those drones was used to document a fire crime scene in Louisiana in July 2014. However, that fateful use led to one of the National Response Team officials discovering that they needed FAA clearance to use a drone. The six drones were thus grounded until the National Response Team could receive guidance on when they could actually use their drones.

The FBI spent $3 million between 2004 and 2013 on small drones to support its investigations. While the drones proved useful, the FBI had only one team of trained pilots for 34 drones. Those pilots had to travel up to thousands of miles to support FBI investigations across the United States when a drone was needed.