By Matthew Gass

The Predator is currently the face of Unmanned Arial Vehicles. Events in Germany show that might be changing

Abe Karem, the aerospace engineer credited as the inventor of the modern Unmanned Arial Vehicle (UAV), was quoted as saying “I was not the guy who put missiles on the Predator”.

Someone did though, and over the past few years the Predator drone has become the new face of the war on terror. In a speech on May 24th President Obama defended the use of Drones, saying they had saved lives, while acknowledging the need for greater oversight in their use.

Meanwhile, in Germany, drones may be about to become the new face of the war on subway graffiti. On Monday 27th May the BBC reported that Germany’s railway company, Deutsche Bahn, was planning to test UAVs equipped with infrared cameras to prevent graffiti being sprayed on its property.

These announcements, taken together, herald the next stage of the lifecycle of the UAV. Even as efforts to limit its military uses begin to gain steam the drone may be transitioning into a routine part of ordinary citizen’s everyday lives.

While the Deutsche Bach example seems a bit like overkill, there is nothing new about military technology being adapted for civilian purposes. For an example look no further that the internet that you are reading this article on.

The spread of UAV technology should not be dismissed out of hand. The Economist recently reported on the technology being adapted for use delivering medicine to areas inaccessible by roads. These efforts have the potential to change millions of lives for the better.

Will people be willing to accept drones on home soil though, given widespread anger already directed towards its military uses. Drone attacks have increased substantially under President Obama (although numbers have dropped since 2010). This campaign has been credited with gutting al-Qaeda and Taliban leadership and greatly reducing their effectiveness, but has also lead to accusations of a lack of transparency, heavy collateral damage and potential illegality under US and international law.  While drones may not have allowed the US to do anything they had not done before with manned airstrikes, they have certainly made it a lot easier.

As such, it is hard to imagine people will accept any transition to civilian use without loud opposition.

The German example has already raised heavy protests that they violate the country’s strict anti-surveillance laws. Restrictions from the Civil Aviation Authority prevented their use by the Merseyside Police in 2010.  In 2012 Home Office Minister Damien Green MP warned that unmanned drones must only be used by police as part of air support plans if it is both “appropriate and proportionate”. However as the technology becomes cheaper and more effective there will be increased temptation to use them in what is already the worlds most surveilled country.

UAV technology still has the potential to be a force for good in the world, but the clear scope for abuse means that rules on their use need to be reassessed and clarified at the very least.

Pretty soon Mr Karem may wish to add that he didn’t put CCTV on a drone either.

Matthew Gass is Membership Secretary at Parliament Street


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