Will 2012 be the year of the drone?

My first post of 2012 – and, yes, my New’s Year’s Resolution is to blog regularly again – is not about a new subject. Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) or drones, are already on their way to being a standard tool of national security and increasingly of policing too. However, given decreasing price of small Micro-Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (MAVs), it was also inevitable that NGOs, activist and citizen groups and even individuals, would soon start to operate them as a form of sousveillance or counter-surveillance, or simply as surveillance.

Some Occupy protestors in Europe and the USA had already made use of commercially available MAVs to broadcast footage of protest. And, the BBC reports today that the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society, the radical direct action anti-whaling group, will this year use an Osprey drone aircraft to monitor Japanese whaling fleets operating in the southern oceans. Sea Shepherd has always been technically adventurous (and PR savvy), operating radar-invisible speedboats and even a submarine in the past.

But it all suggests that drones have made the leap from military to policing to civil use with remarkable speed, and I suggest that in 2012 we will see the proliferation of MAVs operated by non-government users. Let’s just see how fast governments now try to outlaw drones in response…

Sea Shepherd activists test their drone


Manchester Surveillance Blimp Axed

The axed Manchester Police drone (Guardian)

Police in Manchester, UK, have axed a tethered surveillance balloon that cost them 80,000 GBP (around $130,000 US). The supposedly covert balloon – if a large white blimp with ‘POLICE’ written on the side in big blue letters can be called ‘covert’ – had been intended to be used for monitoring of public order at large-scale events. However it was a victim of a more conventional Manchester problem – bad weather. Apparently it did not function very well in wet and windy weather. One would have thought that this might have occurred to the police of a notoriously wet and windy town…

This might seem like a victory for anti-surveillance forces, but of course, this will only increase the pressure for more versatile and weather-proof aerial surveillance, i.e. the micro-UAVs (or camera drones) that several other forces have already purchased, not to mention the more expensive powered high-level surveillance airships of the kind specified in the secret South-Coast Partnership report on drone surveillance.

Time for an international convention on robotic weapons

The estimable Professor Noel Sharkey is calling today for a debate on the use of robotic weapon systems, like the UAVs that I have been covering sporadically. He’s right of course, but we need to go much further and much faster. With increasing numbers of counties turning to remote-controlled weapon systems, and the potential deployment of more independent or even ‘intelligent’ robots in war, hat we need is an international convention which will limit the development and use of automated weapon systems, with clear guidelines on what lines are not to be crossed. In the case of atomic, biological and chemical weapons these kinds of conventions have had mixed success, but we have had very few clear examples of the use of such weapons in international conflicts.

Flying into trouble?

Governments will find it harder and harder to stand up to this kind of pressure from the growing security economy – all the companies grown fat on the War on Terror

Two recent stories of the cancellation of airborne surveillance programs should remind us that the route to a surveillance society is not an inevitable technological trajectory.

You don't see that very often! An airborne DEA surveillance plane (Photo by Schweizer Aircraft/MCT).
You don't see that very often! An airborne DEA surveillance plane (Photo by Schweizer Aircraft/MCT).

One is a classic tale of secret budgets disguising incompetence and disorganisation rather than efficient espionage. The US Drugs Enforcement Agency (DEA) has ended an experimental air surveillance program, following almost total equipment failure. The planes, in short, didn’t fly, or didn’t fly much. Almost $15 million US down the drain, and no accountability because this was an ultra-secret, need-to-know, maximum deniability, ‘black earmark’ project…

The other is a more courageous story of a government finally standing up to the pressure or its larger ‘allies’, and the fear-mongering PR of arms companies. In this case, the Australian government has withdrawn from the BAMS Global Hawk Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV) program. It has cost the country $15 Million AUS, but this will save almost $1 Billion AUS. It also puts a small dent in the massive expansion of UAVs, now being used everywhere from the skies of Afghanistan to the streets of Liverpool. This decision did not make the military-industrial complex very happy and the story in The Australian shows clear evidence of corporate PR spin at work – the emotional blackmail of claiming that this decision could cost Australian lives in the event of more bushfires (or in other stories, it would leave Australia open to terrorism).

Global Hawk (USAF)
Global Hawk (USAF)

Even in a recession, governments will find it harder and harder to stand up to this kind of public pressure from the growing security economy – all the companies grown fat on the War on Terror that have the ear of the military and are backed by US-led consortia. It is to their credit that the Australian government has not given in – as for the US DEA, well, that is the opposite lesson – secrecy and the assumption of necessity can lead to massively wasteful state procurement and an absence of real security. The question is whether either lesson will prompt wider leaning…