EU plans use of drones for surveillance purposes

Alexander Weis, the European Defence Agency’s chief executive, has told the European Parliament that he hopes to have drones flying on a test basis in Europe’s civilian airspace by 2012. Although UAVs are not now equipped to spot what is flying around them, Weis hopes that this problem can be overcome through the development of “sense and avoid” technology. An EDA source said that the UAVs in question will not be armed and are intended primarily for surveillance purposes and for rescue missions.

But research undertaken at the EU’s behest indicates that no neat distinction can be made between drones intended for military and civilian purposes. A 2006 study requested by the European Commission from the consulting firm Frost & Sullivan concluded that the growing number of UAVs in Europe are being bought for military reasons but that they could be adapted to monitor public gatherings or for maritime patrol. Italy subsequently used UAVs as part of the security operation surrounding the summit for the Group of Eight (G8) top industrialised countries in L’Aquila last year.

Brussels sources say that the Pentagon is taking keen interest in the European Union’s work on drones. The U.S. is hoping that the EDA will pave the way for global standards allowing drones to be used in all airspace, according to the sources, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

Daniel Keoghan from the European Union Institute for Strategic Studies in Paris told IPS that promoting UAVs is “probably the most important” work being undertaken by the European Defence Agency in terms of developing new technology.

Keoghan said he could understand why the deployment of drones for surveillance would be a cause of concern for many citizens, but argued that the EDA is merely carrying out tasks assigned to it by EU governments. “If I was a civil libertarian, I would very much be focused on what governments are doing and why they think we need this technology,” he said. “The EDA is just a servant.”

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