Drone Wars: Surveying the home front

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Today Statewatch and Drone Wars UK are co-publishing a new report into the use of unmanned drones in UK airspace. Back from the Battlefield: Domestic Drones in the UK written by Chris Jones of Statewatch examines the current use of drones in UK airspace by public and private bodies looking in particular at their use by police and border control authorities. The report argues that it is essential for widespread debate, discussion and democratic decision-making on the issue of ‘domestic’ drones in order to establish acceptable limits on their deployment and use by public authorities, private companies and individuals.

Despite strict Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) regulations that control and limit the use of drones in UK airspace slowly but surely the number of drone operators is increasing. In late 2011 Drone Wars UK revealed that around 50 to 60 annual ‘permissions’ were granted by the CAA to private companies and public institutions to fly drones in UK airspace. Read more

Implications of US drone lobby success beginning to dawn

The repercussions of the drone lobby’s success in forcing open US domestic airspace to unmanned drones by 2015 are beginning to be felt across the US as civil liberties groups and politicians wake up to the implications for safety and privacy.

An article on the Public Intelligence website asks the basic questions “Is it even logistically possible to operate thousands of pilot-less aircraft in domestic airspace?”  The authors examine two basic practical problems with unmanned drones.  Firstly how they tend to become “zombies” by losing their wireless data-link to the remote operator – and then crashing.   And secondly how without ‘sense and avoid’ capability drones are unable to avoid other aircraft and cause mid-air collisions.   In both cases the more drones that fly – and the FAA predict up to 30,000 drones will be flying in the US by the end of the decade – the more incidents of lost data links and mid-air collisions there will be.

While safety is rightly the primary concern, civil liberties issues are also seriously affected by the new legislation. Last week the co-chairs of the Congressional Privacy Caucus, Ed Markey & Joe Barton, wrote an open letter to the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) pointing out the “potential for drone technology to enable invasive and pervasive surveillance without adequate privacy protection” and requesting information as to how the FAA were to address privacy concerns.

In particular the pair want to know

  • What privacy protections and public transparency requirements has the FAA built into its current temporary licensing process for drones used in U.S. airspace?
  • Is the public notified about where and when drones are used, who operates them, what data are collected, how are the data used, how long are they retained, and who has access to that data?
  • How does the FAA plan to ensure that drone activities under the new law are transparent and individual privacy rights are protected?
  • How will the FAA determine whether an entity applying to operate a drone will properly address these privacy concerns.”

A couple of days later an ‘op-ed’ piece in the Washington Post by two Brookings analysts also raised the privacy issue:

“The current legal framework with respect to observations from above by government is not particularly protective of privacy. Two of the most relevant Supreme Court cases, California v. Ciraolo in 1986 and Florida v. Riley in 1989, addressed law enforcement’s use of manned aircraft to perform surveillance of a suspect’s property. In both cases, the court held that observations made from “public navigable airspace” in the absence of a warrant did not violate the Fourth Amendment.

These precedents suggest, in a world in which UAVs will be inexpensive and plentiful, that government operators might have broad legal latitude to use them for surveillance. Non-government operators may have even fewer constraints regarding surveillance. And today’s cameras are far more capable than those of the 1980s and can acquire stunning high-resolution imagery from hundreds of feet away — imagery that can be processed using ever more capable computers.”

However, the op-ed’s authors, John Villasenor and Ben Wittes also make the not unreasonable point that given “the challenges the agency will face in safely providing for the operation of what may soon be tens of thousands of UAVs, operated by tens of thousands of people from unconventional flight locations… to broaden its already unenviable task, to include this hotly disputed field [of privacy] that lies far from its core competency, is a recipe for bad and technologically uneven outcomes that will satisfy no one.”

The consequences of allowing unmanned drones to fly within domestic airspace both in terms of safety and privacy are beginning to be apparent to all.  That such a serious step should be taken in such a rush and under such pressure, simply  because of industry lobbying is ludicrous.   There needs to be a serious re-think, as well as an investigation into how companies with a vested industry were able to force through such a huge change with little apparent regard to the consequences.

Extent of unmanned drone use within UK civil airspace revealed

Aerovironment Wasp III - one of drones being flown in UK civil airspace

Analysis of information received in response to a series of Freedom of Information requests to the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) has revealed that around fifty to sixty companies and public bodies per year are being granted “blanket permission” to fly unmanned drones within UK civil airspace.   With very few exceptions each flight must remain under 400 feet and within 500 metres of the operator.

While names of companies and institutions who have been granted permission to fly drones has not been revealed, the type of work being undertaken includes aerial photography and filming,  surveying of buildings and land, emergency services work, and surveillance in support of law enforcement, data collection, evidence gathering and security.

The Civil Aviation Authority grants three types of ‘permissions’ to fly unmanned aircraft : a) permission for a one-off flight,  b) permission for a series of flights in a limited time frame, or c) blanket permission which must be renewed on an annual basis.

The CAA has told Drone Wars UK that out of the 100 applications submitted between January 2010 and September 2011, 98 blanket permissions were issued.  With one exception all the applications were for drones weighing less than 20kg.  While in the time frame many of the 98 applications will have been renewals a conservative estimate is that around fifty to sixty companies and public bodies are regularly flying unmanned drones in  UK civil airspace.

Chris Cole of Drone Wars UK said:  “I expected to find that the CAA would have mostly granted one-off permissions to fly drones in UK airspace, with perhaps a handful of blanket permissions granted each year. However around ten times the number of blanket permissions are being granted. Once this blanket permission has been granted, who monitors what these companies are doing with their drones?”

Some work being undertaken by these drones seems fairly innocuous, including application for tasks such as “surveys for geography, environment and archaeological survey”  and “data gathering for insurance, building surveys, health and safety etc.“  The majority of applications however, contain little real information about the work being undertaken with  “stills & video photography from the air” and “aerial photography & video” being common.  Occasionally other types of work are mentioned such as: “evidence gathering, surveillance and search” and “surveillance in support of UK law enforcement.”

While the CAA are responsible for ensuring that these unmanned flights within UK civil airspace are flown  safely, who is ensuring that the public’s privacy and civil liberties are protected?

New Year deaths as US forces addicted to ‘crack-like’ Drones

2011 started where 2010 left off with continued drone attacks in Pakistan.  On 27/28th December 42 people were killed in drone strikes while 19 people were killed in three separate drone attacks in North Waziristan on New Year’s Day  and between 4 and 6 people were killed in an attack on a vehicle near the town of Miranshah in North Waziristan.   Most reports labelled all those killed as ‘militants’ but as Jason Ditz of antiwar.com says

“Officials term everyone killed a “suspected militant” but concede that they don’t know any of the identities of the slain and that civilians are almost certain to be amongst the toll. With virtually no media allowed into the region, identifying the victims of US attacks is virtually impossible.” 

The New Year also began with a lot of coverage of Gorgon Stare  – despite missing its ‘end-of-2010’  deployment deadline – mainly thanks to a large article in the Washington Post.   As we have previously reported Gorgon Stare  is a new surveillance capability that allows a wide area of ground to be videoed  while also enabling individuals to be tracked within that wide area. 

The amount of video from drone surveillance is already  overwhelming analysts yet the military continues to demands more.  The Post article quotes Army Col. Steven A. Beckman, former intelligence chief for coalition forces in Sothern Afghanistan as calling drone video coverage “the crack cocaine of our ground forces.”

Flight international reports that one Gorgon Stare ‘pod’ will be deployed in Afghanistan before April 2011, one in 2012 and one in 2014.

Finally a new year curiosity was the reported shooting down of two ‘western spy drones’ by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard.  Amir Ali Hajizadeh, head of the air force wing of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards made the claim but gave no further details and there were  quick denials from the US that any of its drones had been shot down.

Out Staring The Gorgon: BAE, Drones and ARGUS

ARGUS -IS sensor (BAE Systems)

Last week,  BAE Systems quietly announced that it had won a $50m contract to further develop the ARGUS  system in conjunction with U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA ).   ARGUS (or Autonomous Real-time Ground Ubiquitous Surveillance) provides real-time, high-resolution, video surveillance capability for U.S. combat forces for detecting, locating, tracking and monitoring events on battlefields.  It is being designed to be used with drones or small manned aircraft.

This latest contract, to develop an infrared capability for ARGUS so that it can be used at nightime, come a few months after few months after BAE Systems admitted that ARGUS had been successfully tested by DARPA in Autumn 2009.

In a helpful article, ARES explains that ARGUS

“is designed to overcome the narrow “soda-straw” field of view of conventional surveillance sensors by providing multiple real-time video streams ….   DARPA says ARGUS can provide up to 65 “Predator-class” steerable video streams.  The 1.8-gigapixel sensor has four optical telescopes, each with 92 5-megapixel focal-plane arrays – cellphone camera chips, says BAE. The airborne processor combines the video output from all 368 arrays together to create a single mosaic image, with an update rate of 12-15 frames a second.

On the ground, the operator can create windows around stationary or moving targets within the image and ARGUS will down-link the video for these windows in real time. The system provides up to 65 640 x 480-pixel video streams simultaneously, limited only by data link capacity. Also a “global motion detector” mode looks at the entire image and tags potential targets with low-res image “chips”.

ARGUS in Operation (image Wired.com)

In other words, one drone will be able to track, in real time, up to 65 targets and as Wired.com suggests, monitor them over and area of 65 miles.

With up to 65 simultaneous video streams ARGUS easily beats the famously named ‘Gorgon Stare’ which was being developed to have 12 video streams.

ARES has also posted some fascinating images of what ARGUS is capable of doing.

The old adage “you can run, but you can’t hide” is becoming more true than ever, and real-time surveillance of huge swathes of territory using drones seems to be just over the horizon.

Surveillance drones in the UK?

Speaking about armed drones to a group in Essex  last night I was asked about the use of drones to spy on people in the UK.  I get this question regularly since the Guardian reported in January that a number of police forces are working with BAE Systems in a Home Office backed project to develop a national drone plan. 

Currently the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) does not allow unmanned drones to be flown in UK airspace with the exception of certain military test sites.   When Merseyside police jumped the gun and used a drone to track a stolen car, they were threatened with prosecution by the CAA  and had to promise not to use drones again.    (I have been told that drones have been sighted at various demos but presumably after the high-profile rebuke of Merseyside police this is not happening now).

It is not just the UK that does not allow unmanned drones to be flown in civil airspace for safety reasons .  Frustrated by this, the military industry has been working on ways to put pressure civil aviation authorities.   The latest  bit of pressure is a ‘year long study by 23 European military companies’ into how manned and unmanned aircraft can fly together.  Flight Magazine reports:  

“One of the major issues at the heart of UAS development today is the integration of these vehicles into civil airspace. We need to ensure proper segregation of existing air traffic and maintain a high level of safety for all airspace users to the standards of international civil aviation,” says Pierre-Eric Pommellet, Thales senior vice-president in charge of defence mission systems.   While calling the SIGAT findings “decisive” and “a major outcome for European defence ministries” considering the technical and regulatory aspects of operating manned and unmanned aircraft in the same airspace, no details on the findings were released.

In my experience the military industry usually gets what it  want.  Whilst the CAA holds the upper hand at the moment, I suspect that over the next few year, in particular in the run up to the 2012 Olympics,  there will be increasing pressure to allow drones to undertake surveillance work in UK airspace.

Meanwhile, as I am beginning to regular say at the end of these posts, there has been another drone stike in Pakistan.

PS –  The existing six-mile training area aound Parc Aberporth in Wales to be extended.