Spy drones recruited in war against graffiti

Coming to a sky near you: This military spy drone could soon have domestic duties © Getty Images

The German rail network has ignited a tense national debate by announcing plans to guard its trains using surveillance drones. How alarmed should we be by these flying security cameras?

Graffiti artists have long been the nemesis of the German rail network. Creeping into depots in the dead of night to scrawl their intricate signatures onto the resting trains, they cause an estimated £6.5 million worth of damage every year. But now Deutsche Bahn has acquired a weapon which it hopes will vanquish these enterprising vandals once and for all: an unmanned aerial vehicle.

UAVs (or drones, as they are usually called) are not robots – they are, like other aircraft, piloted by humans. But instead of lodging in the cockpit, pilots can fly drones from the comfort of their computers anywhere in the world.

Drones are most famously (and controversially) deployed by the US military. Armed with hellfire missiles, they are thought to have killed almost 5,000 people in the past decade. But they are also increasingly used for more peaceful work. Farmers, for instance, can now use drones to precisely monitor crops and spray them with water and chemicals. Emergency services have adopted them for search and rescue missions, while conservationists use them to track the spread of animal populations.

For all of these purposes, drones are a helpful and ingenious tool. But there is another use for them which fills many people with dread: surveillance.

Mounted with a camera and fitted with near-silent engines, a small drone is the perfect spy. It can hover unnoticed in the distant skies while its operator scans close-up images of the ground for anything amiss. And fitted with infrared sensors – as those on the German rail system will be – a drone can even see in the dark.

For now, Deutsche Bahn will only use drones within their own warehouses. But the technology will soon be used by security services to police public events like football matches. And it’s not only governments who have access to them: anybody can now buy a drone for under £300, complete with video camera and controlled by a smartphone app.

I fly with my little eye

Undetectable flying machines patrolling our cities and watching our every move? Even George Orwell didn’t foresee something as sinister as that, say privacy campaigners. If this technology goes unchecked, nowhere will be safe from the lingering eye of governments and big corporations – let alone the prying gaze of private individuals.

But how different is this really, ask drone manufacturers, from the technology we are already accustomed to? CCTV cameras watch over every major city street, keeping us safe from crime without doing an inch of harm. The fear of drones is not a rational reaction, they say, but a primal kneejerk suspicion of technology and an animal fear of being watched. We must not let that stand in the way of progress.

You Decide

  1. Should surveillance drones be legal?
  2. Do you find the idea of being watched by a drone scarier than being watched by a human? What about a CCTV camera?

Activities

  1. Think of one clever use for an unmanned aerial vehicle and draw a simple design, including a description of how it would work.
  2. In pairs, stage a debate between a law enforcement officer who wants to deploy surveillance drones and a privacy campaigner who objects to their use.

Some People Say...

“Only people with something to hide are afraid of being watched.”

What do you think?

Q & A

Could a drone be watching me right now?
That’s extremely unlikely! At the moment, drones are only used in very particular circumstances, not just to spy on ordinary buildings and streets.
‘At the moment’?
Michael Bloomberg, Mayor of New York, has told his citizens to ‘get used’ to the idea of drones, claiming that they are an inevitable part of the future for every major city. ‘It’s not a question of good or bad,’ he says, ‘I just don’t see how you can stop them.’
So there’s nothing I can do?
A recently released app claims to offer a warning when drones are overhead, and you may soon be able to buy a reflective hoodie which conceals its wearer. But the best remedy is probably government legislation to limit where and how drones can be used.

Word Watch

Nemesis
An arch-enemy. The original Nemesis was the Ancient Greek goddess of fury and retribution.
Almost 5,000 people
Official data is difficult to come by, but the American armed forces have certainly used drones to kill thousands of suspected terrorists in several countries, including Pakistan, Afghanistan, Yemen, Somalia and Iraq.
Infrared
Light whose wavelength is longer than the visible spectrum that makes up our view of the world. Infrared energy is emitted by anything warmer than 0°C, so an infrared camera can create a thermal image in which warm blooded animals can be clearly detected.
Football matches
Surveillance drones are set to be used at the 2014 World Cup, and they will be tested at next week’s friendly between Brazil and England.
George Orwell
An English journalist and political novelist in the first half of the 20th Century (real name Eric Blair). Orwell’s dystopian fantasy 1984 imagined a world in which a repressive and omnipresent government watched citizens constantly and indoctrinated them with its propaganda.

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