What are they?
Unmanned surveillance drones, or unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) are originally a military technology. They’re deployed extensively in Afghanistan, for example. Controlled remotely, they are equipped with a long-range camera that can be used for the observation of … well, pretty much anything, really. It’s even possible to attach weaponry to them.
What’s the history?
UAVs date back as far as 1916. For most of their history, they’ve been restricted to the military arena. Typically, they’ve been seen as a way of limiting fatalities amongst air force pilots. Only in the last few years has their use spilled into the civilian world, with governments and military contractors spying a lucrative new market in border surveillance, mineral exploration and (supposedly) crime prevention.
What are the aims?
Admittedly, they can be deployed as a kind of mobile CCTV. Police on Merseyside made an arrest using a UAV in February 2010, an arrest that was later deemed to be illegal because the officers did not have a licence to operate the drone. When police forces around the country want to use them to counter such heinous villains as fly-tippers and tractor thieves, however, it seems clear that there is another agenda at work.
Enriching both government and military contractors such as BAE and Thales, while further increasing the level of control the authorities exercise over the populace, seems a pretty fair bet.
What’s the current situation?
At present, thankfully, the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) still has the final say on whether drones can be operated in UK airspace and is yet to grant them a licence. They can base this decision on the grounds that drones are not safe to share airspace with other craft, rather than on civil liberties grounds. Military contractors and the Government are lobbying hard to convince the CAA to grant a licence to fly drones, however.
A government-funded EADS study designed for that purpose has been commissioned, and the CAA looks likely to come under increasing pressure to ratify the use of spy drones by police forces.
What problems do they cause me?
This is about as sinister as it gets. Unmanned drones have the potential to track your every move, and provide grounds for detaining you if your behaviour is deemed ‘suspicious’ – which, presumably, would include attempting to evade surveillance.
The nightmare vision of a Big Brother society, in which an authoritarian government holds the populace in thrall through surveillance, has never looked closer than it does from beneath the flight path of an unmanned drone.
If you care about the erosion of your civil liberties, not to mention the quality of your life and the freedom of your family and children, this is one issue to be very aware of.
What does the future hold?
It looks likely to go one of two ways. Either unmanned drones will be deemed unsuitable for use in civilian airspaces (clearly our preferred option) or police officers will be granted a licence to utilise them. If the former, we can expect drones to remain at worst an extremely rare sight in our skies. If the latter, we can expect them to become increasingly common, and to find ourselves surveyed on an even more constant basis than we already are.