Russia’s police are starting to use unmanned drones much more often for monitoring street protest rallies, Irina Borogan and Andrei Soldatov report. This sinister development has the complete support of President Putin.
Many of the protestors at the first mass demonstration in Bolotnaya Square on 10 December 2011 were confused by the unfamiliar aerial vehicle with propellers circling overhead. Some even thought it might be a UFO. The mysterious device turned out to be a radio-controlled aircraft being used by Ridus, the agency for ‘citizen journalism’ to photograph the demonstration.
The photographs were of staggering quality: the panoramic views of the crowds on Bolotnaya Square, the bridges and the embankment became a hit in the internet – and not only because they looked so good. These photographs were objective evidence in calculating the number of people who had attended this demonstration, the first mass protest rally for almost 20 years. The bird’s eye view showed clearly the density of the crowd, the groups of people with flags and the smoke from the burning flares.
Naturally, the special services and the Interior Ministry were not going to let such opportunities pass them by. Several years ago they started acquiring these unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs or drones) for observation from the air, and they are of considerably superior quality to the primitive multicopter that was operating at Bolotnaya Square.
Drones against activists
Some claim Russia first became seriously interested in drones at the time of the 2008 war with Georgia, when the Defence Ministry hastily embarked on acquiring Israeli technology. In fact drones had already been in use in Russia some 2 years before, but for policing, rather than military, purposes. They were used to monitor street protests.
The Interior Ministry first deployed drones in July 2006 at the time of the G8 Summit in St Petersburg. The model in use was Zala 421-04M: a small plane with a wingspan of just over 1.5m, weighing about 5kgs and able to fly at 3000m for 90 minutes. The Zala is equipped with thermal vision, can plot map grid references of objects below and transmits video- and photographic images live to an operator’s screen.
The field tests were obviously considered successful. According to the accounts of human rights campaigners, hundreds of activists intending to protest during the G8 summit were unable to reach Petersburg because they were detained on the outskirts of the city.
From that time the Interior Ministry started purchasing drones regularly. The designer and manufacturer of the drone used during the G8 summit is a group of companies called Zala Aero, set up at the beginning of the 2000s in Izhevsk. The Interior Ministry Aviation Centre and the FSB Border Services soon became regular customers. According to company data, there are approximately 20 people on the staff; the company is private, rather than being based in the huge Soviet aviation enterprises like most of the other drone manufacturers.
'Capturing faces in any detail requires a very heavy drone with a good camera; more precisely, with a heavy, specialised platform. There are cameras that are powerful enough do this, but the photograph wouldn't be good enough quality for a magazine cover'
Maksim Shinkevich’s, Deputy Director, Zala Aero Co. (Izhevsk)
The Deputy Director, Maksim Shinkevich, told us on the telephone from Izhevsk that since 2006 the company had supplied about 70 unmanned aerial systems (UAS) to the Interior Ministry, each of which contains several aircraft. Along with the model used for the ‘protection’ of the G8 summit, the police’s favourite model is the Zala 421-08M. This can sit on a desk: 45cms long, 85cms wingspan, weighing 2.5kgs, but able to carry out observations for slightly more than 1 hour.
Shinkevich said that these days almost every Interior Ministry air group has a drone. Sometimes they’ll have just a laptop controlling 2 small planes. In other cases there will be a full KAMAZ military truck and several aircraft.
At the St Petersburg G8 summit, the drones had been deployed to observe people’s movements or any crowd bunching and to check up on cars, according to Shinkevich. This involved 2 or 3 aerial systems, or 4 small planes: the sophistication of the software and the Zala devices meant that only 1 person was needed to operate the system, launching several planes at the same time; for any more than 4 UAS, 2-4 people would have been required (depending on the system size, its composition and the kind of catapult used to launch it).
Were the cameras on the drones able to capture a car numberplate, we wondered? The camera on the 16E system could, in Shinkevich’s view, though probably not under all circumstances, because the camera angle is from overhead, rather than side on. ‘From some angles it would definitely be possible. Capturing faces in any detail would however require a very heavy drone with a good camera; more precisely, with a heavy, specialised platform. There were cameras that could do this, the photograph wouldn't be good enough quality for, say, a magazine cover'.
The privacy of private lives — a thing of the past
At the present time, the quality of drone technology means that they are not too effective for identifying protestors in a crowd, but they are extremely suitable for monitoring conditions on the ground.
According to information from the Interior Ministry, 26 Russian regions have special operations air groups and over the last 6 years most of them have acquired drones. They are most frequently deployed in the battle with crime, though the police make no secret of the fact that they intend to use them for monitoring demonstrations and marches.
'It is already clear that drones will be actively deployed during the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi. As part of the preparations for the Games, 4 new drones were acquired in 2010 for the local air group.'
In the tender documentation for the acquisition of two Zala drones, the Amur Regional Department of the Interior Ministry states that the technology will be used for monitoring infrastructure, places where mass demonstrations are held, searches, and site surveillance. At the time of the test flight in March 2011, the head of the air operation centre of the Amur Department of the Interior, Sergei Kanunnikov, explained to the Amur.info correspondent why he considered the drones to be necessary: 'They will be used mainly to maintain public order during local demonstrations and marches, when we shall be keeping watch from the air to avoid any incidents.'
It is already clear that drones will be actively deployed during the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi. As part of the preparations for the Games, 4 new drones were acquired in 2010 for the local air group.
Specialists acknowledge that drones are difficult to operate within cities, as permission is not readily granted by the Regional Air Traffic Control Centre to either private companies or, even, the security services. Launching drones over crowds or city dwellings is risky because of the high probability of one of the small devices losing control and falling.
Deploying the drones outside cities is, however, more promising, as they can circulate virtually without restriction over fields and woods, where there are private cottages and dachas. The operator of the control station can see on his screen in real time everything that is happening on this private land, without the owners knowing, though undercover surveillance of a house requires the permission of a court. The more drones there are in operation, the more transparent our private life will become.
We asked Maksim Shinkevich if he was not worried that drones were intruding into people's private lives. Private life was something we had back in the twentieth century, he said: 'The secrets of our private lives have become a thing of the past All mobile phones have cameras, which can be switched on at any time and used for recording. Someone who goes out on to a balcony to take a photograph could also be said to be intruding into private life. Drones can be used in many ways too; and not only drones, but CCTV cameras on the roads and in commercial organisations.
Four and half minutes
The police and the Kremlin may still be looking for an effective way of using drones, but events at Bolotnaya Square make it pretty clear that the media have already solved the problem, though it will probably be difficult to repeat that particular success.
Stanislav Sedov is 35 and a highways engineer by training. Since he was a child he has been fascinated by flight simulation. 4 years ago he made this his profession, when he started using homemade radio-controlled equipment to take aerial panoramic photographs. It was he who suggested to his friend Ilya Varlamov, well-known blogger and founder of the Ridus agency, that he might try to film the crowd from a drone.
'I suggested it to him and he obtained unofficial permission for us to do this,' Sedov told us.
How exactly he managed to obtain that permission is not very clear, but it has been widely reported that Ridus was itself set up with the approval of the Presidential Administration. On 10 December, Sedov launched a multicopter from a protected police site. The police even chased away curious observers so they didn't get in the way of the launch.
Sedov explained that he had already drawn up safety rules, which is why he launched the multicopter over a canal near the square, rather than over the crowd. In this way the multicopter would have fallen into water, had anything gone wrong. It flew no higher than 100m and was in the air for 4.5 minutes.
When it became clear that many more people had come to the demonstration than expected and that the Ridus photographs were the very best evidence of that fact, the unofficial agreement with the authorities and Sedov's precautions did not save them from problems with the law enforcement agencies. Stanislav Sedov confirmed that they had had problems after Bolotnaya, but declined to say any more. They were, however, clearly sufficiently significant to ensure that the Bolotnaya experience would not be repeated.
News agencies had not been racing to find pilots to take on this kind of work, Sedov confirmed. RIA Novosti (state news agency) do sometimes hire pilots for one-off jobs, but in all honesty, he said, he is very unwilling to consider proposals for filming in Moscow. 'Now I would find it easier to go abroad and film there'.
Those 4.5 minutes over Bolotnaya Square were, it appears, the only window of opportunity for journalists to highlight the protests – and that window has now been firmly closed. It was a happy combination of circumstance in December: the pro-Kremlin agency's interests coincided with the enthusiasm of the multicopter pilot and the Kremlin's miscalculation in deciding to record the paucity of the demonstrators.
A priority sphere
The trade exhibition 'Man and Security' in Minsk at the beginning of June was not too well attended, despite the fact that the Belarus KGB, the Interior and Defence Ministries were among the organizers. Visitors to the exhibition were, it seemed, more interested in the Border Forces' guard dogs and the presentation by the Special Task Force than the technological achievements of Belarus. Only one stand proved the exception to this rule: the drones of the Minsk Institute of Physics and Engineering Research and Development Centre attracted a lot of visitors.
‘..we should very actively develop unmanned aircraft programmes… The necessary resources have been allocated for the purpose: over 400 billion rubles by 2020.’
Vladimir Putin, 14 July, 2012
The head of the Research Centre, Yuriy Yatsyna, had recently returned from trials at the Russian military test range. Standing next to his drone, he told us that at least one device, the electrical aircraft 'Busel' was already being supplied to Russia. 'Busel' is a drone with 2 propellers, a wingspan of slightly more than 2m and a flight time of about 50 minutes. To judge by the literature, 'Busel' could also 'monitor public order at sites of mass protests.'
Yatsyna very much hopes he will get more orders from Russia. His enthusiasm seems not without foundation: 2012 will, apparently, be a crucial year for the fate of the drone in Russia. The Defence Ministry orders have already enabled dozens of Russian manufacturers of drones for military purposes to flourish (the largest being Vega, Irkut and Eniks), and the Interior Ministry is also buying on a big scale.
In May the Interior Ministry placed a 121 million rouble order for drones and additional equipment to be supplied to the Stavropol Krai [administrative division], Amur, Omsk and Astrakhan Regions, Dagestan, the Krasnoyarsk Krai, Kabardino-Balkaria, Ingushetia and even the Baikonur Cosmodrome.
A month later the Interior Ministry was found to be ordering another 6 remote-piloted intelligence-gathering crafts. Contract documentation specified that the reconnaissance would be extended to 'groups of people, means of transport, roads, bridges and buildings.' This is clearly not the last such contract for drones this year, so perhaps a place will even be found for technology from Belarus.
Only the other day, Vladimir Putin gave his personal support to the developed of unmanned aviation in Russia. On 14 June at a meeting in the Krasnodar Krai to review the implementation of the state armaments programme for aviation technology, the President said: ‘..we should very actively develop unmanned aircraft programmes…. It is imperative to involve the best engineering and science bureaux and centres in this effort, to review opportunities for international cooperation, to build up our R&D capacities and production facilities. And the necessary resources have been allocated for the purpose: over 400 billion rubles by 2020.’