EU: Commission wants drones flying in European skies by 2016

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14.09.2012 - It is "imperative for the EU to take action now" to ensure that drones can fly in civil airspace alongside manned aircraft by 2016, according to a working paper recently released by the European Commission. [1] A raft of measures are suggested that will allow state authorities and private enterprises to fly drones with ease, in order to ensure that European industry gets a slice of the profits from the emerging global market for unmanned aircraft, and to secure "important benefits to European citizens and the European economy as a whole." But despite brief mention of the ethical and political concerns raised by widespread domestic drone usage, the document largely treats the issue as a technical exercise.

Market creation

"In these times of economic downturn," says the Commission, "Europe needs more than never to identify and support… opportunities to boost industrial competitiveness, promote entrepreneurship and create new business in order to generate growth and jobs."

The document, Towards a European strategy for the development of Remotely Piloted Aircraft Systems (RPAS), states that "hundreds of potential civil applications have been identified": state purposes such as border control, law enforcement, search and rescue and fire fighting; and for commercial purposes such as agriculture, forestry, infrastructure inspection, communication and broadcast services, and many more.

In order to do so, however, "regulatory deficiencies" (safety, liability, and technological issues) and "market failures" (in transforming research and development into profitable business) need to be addressed, which the Commission proposes to deal with initially by establishing a steering group that will develop by the end of 2012 a roadmap for the insertion of drones into civil airspace by 2016.

It is worth noting that in the US, whom the Commission is particularly keen to prevent capturing "most of the potential of new markets related to RPAS," a roadmap for drone use in civil airspace took nine months to produce. The Commission's paper suggests a timeframe of three months, and EU targets for the introduction of drones into civil airspace have already slipped significantly - some years ago, it was proposed that the necessary work be undertaken by 2012.

Ensuring "wide public acceptance"

It is well-known amongst drone enthusiasts that their favoured vehicles have an image problem, largely associated with their role in military operations around the world, and in particular the US military's 'targeted killing' program. As the Commission puts it: "Citizens still feel uncomfortable with RPAS because their most publicised use concern military and peace keeping missions."

It was reported by The Guardian in February that British companies were planning a propaganda campaign designed to sway public opinion towards favouring civil drone use. One consortium made up of government, industry and academia representatives was apparently advised by the UK's airspace regulator, the Civilian Aviation Authority, to "paint a more positive picture" of drones to try and allay fears over "big brother" putting "eyes in the sky." [2]

The Commission's proposed solution of dealing with public opposition is to ensure the "consultation of stakeholders" in the policy-making process underlying the development of civilian drone use, including the European Parliament's LIBE Committee, the European Agency for Fundamental Rights, and the European Data Protection Supervisor. It also suggests basic guidelines for civil drone use on a "privacy and data protection impact assessment."

It is worth noting that the term "remotely-piloted aircraft systems" is in itself an invention of the industry intended to try and prevent the use of the word 'unmanned' (which apparently raises safety concerns), or the even-more-dreaded 'drone', a word that apparently causes some manufacturers to "cringe". [3]

A technical exercise

Privacy and data protection issues are addressed to some degree by the Commission's paper, which notes that "all actions related to the development of the RPAS must respect the rights and principles enshrined in the Charter for Fundamental Rights," and that the current EU proposals for new data protection rules should be used to "define the benchmarks for data processing carried out by state authorities."

The Commission has however overlooked a wide number of political and ethical issues raised by proposals to eliminate barriers to the civil use of drones by state authorities and private enterprises, which are well-outlined in a report produced last year by the American Civil Liberties Union.

In Protecting Privacy From Aerial Surveillance: Recommendations for Government Use of Drone Aircraft, Jay Stanley and Catherine Crump make clear a wide variety of ways in which widespread drone use by law enforcement authorities could severely restrict individual liberties, suggesting a strong regulatory regime to ensure that drone technology is not misused by the authorities.

While making clear the potential benefits drone use may have for certain purposes, they also note a number of possibilities that may arise were drone use to become common:

- Chilling effects - "What would be the effects on our public spaces, and our society as a whole, if everyone felt the keen eye of the government on their backs whenever they ventured outdoors?"
- Voyeurism - those operating surveillance drones may be tempted to abuse their position
- Discriminatory targeting - quoting evidence from the UK that CCTV operators are more likely to target black than white people for prolonged observation, Stanley and Crump argue that problems may arise from the fact that "the individuals operating surveillance systems bring to the job their existing prejudices and biases"
- Institutional abuse - for example, through police forces or intelligence agencies carrying out repressive actions against political activists
- Automated enforcement - "drones are part of a trend toward automated law enforcement, in which cameras and other technologies are used to mete out justice with little or no human intervention" [4]

Further concerns include the possibility of function creep (drones may, for example, be purchased for specific, restricted operational uses, but come to be used for more common, controversial reasons); tracking ("fleets of UAVs, interconnected and augmented with analytics software, could enable the mass tracking of vehicles and pedestrians"); and the possibility of new uses being devised, such as crowd control. Some manufacturers in the US are already offering to police forces drones armed with rubber bullets. [5]

The Commission's paper mentions none of these issues, and is instead concerned almost entirely with finding solutions to technical problems that prevent widespread civil drone use: "sense and avoid" technology; radio frequency allocation; integration into air traffic management systems, and so on. While stating that it "is a working document" that "does not represent an official position of the Commission on this matter, nor prejudge it", there is a significant institutional machinery (and industry lobby) that has for some years been working hard to promote the integration of drones into civil airspace. If the proposal to establish by the end of the year a roadmap outlining how to ensure widespread civil drone use by 2016 comes to fruition, it is urgent that it take into account not just technical issues, but also ethical and political concerns.

[1] European Commission, 'Towards a European strategy for the development of Remotely Piloted Aircraft Systems (RPAS)', 6 September 2012
[2] Ryan Gallagher, 'Surveillance drone industry plans PR effort to counter negative image', The Guardian, 2 February 2012
[3] Ben Wolfgang, 'Some makers cringe to hear word 'drone'', The Washington Times, 7 August 2012
[4] Jay Stanley and Catherine Crump, Privacy From Aerial Surveillance: Recommendations for Government Use of Drone Aircraft, December 2011
[5] Hannah Yi, 'Tase of our lives', The Daily, 12 March 2012

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