openDemocracyUK

Air traffic control: the last obstacle to police drones?

Thomas Ash
16 February 2010

Towards the end of January, I quoted from a Guardian report on police plans to use aerial drones - more famous as flying assassins for the US military - to monitor the British population. As I commented at the time, "sometimes it is hard to avoid the suspicion that the powers that be are just trying to see how many elements of the repressive dystopias of recent science fiction they can imitate without anyone complaining". A story in today's Guardian suggests the complaints are likely to come sooner rather than later:

For Merseyside police, the "eye in the sky" arrest was a landmark moment in policing history. The force had managed to track down and apprehend a teenager who had fled from a presumed stolen Renault Clio, senior officers revealed, by using a remote-controlled flying robot equipped with thermal imaging cameras.

But the attempt to claim credit for the UK's first arrest using a surveillance drone backfired tonight after it emerged the force itself could face prosecution because officers flew the surveillance aircraft without permission – a criminal offence.

The paper tipped off the Civil Aviation Authority, which is apparently looking into the matter, as it announced at the start of this year that it would control the licensing of all unmanned aerial vehicles (persumably not including the remote-controlled miniature helicopters that have proved so popular over the last few Christmases). The drone in question does not looking too intimidating if Merseyside Police's photo is anything to go by:

The UAVs used in war zones, from the Reaper in Afghanistan to Israel's Hermes and Heron, are far more threatening. Israel's use of drones goes back to the 1982 conflict with Syria; it has become a leader in the technology, selling hundreds of millions of dollars worth of the vehicles to countries such as Turkey ($185m) and Brazil ($350m). They were used in Kosovo in the nineties and Lebanon and Gaza in the noughties. Drones accounted for the deaths of over eighty civilians in Operation Cast Lead. A controversial Human Rights Watch report, 'Precisely Wrong: Gaza Civilians Killed by Israeli Drone-Launched Missiles' painted a damning picture of these actions.

The little police drone pictured above is nothing like such weaponry. But perhaps its ancestry should give us pause.

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