Flying a drone usually requires a permit, either for a single flight or repeated use. In either case, the Air Traffic Act stipulates that the device must always be in the pilot's field of vision.
As of June, unmanned flying objects weighing less than 5 kilograms (11 pounds) can receive a limited permit for operation up to 100 meters "above the ground." But they cannot be flown over crowds of people, accident sites, disaster zones and other areas where police and security personnel are being deployed. Prisons, industrial facilities, power plants and military complexes are also off-limits. But who is going to monitor all of this?
In the last two years, aviation authorities in the German states have issued more than 500 special permits for unmanned flying objects, and the numbers are growing.
But the private operation of drones generally isn't included in such statistics. "There are no restrictions on the use of the airspace by aircraft," states the Air Traffic Act -- as long as other laws are observed. But a property owner on the ground rarely knows whether this is the case. To determine whether a drone is being used illegally, he or she would first have to see it and preferably know who is operating it. There are regulations in place to protect people from clandestine surveillance, but "what good are laws when citizens don't even notice that their rights are being violated?" asks Peter Schaar, the German government's commissioner for privacy protection.
The federal government also feels somewhat uneasy about the possibilities the new surveillance technology creates. The decline in costs and wide range of possible uses raise "the question of the protection of the private sphere," according to a report by the Federal Ministry of Food, Agriculture and Consumer Protection. In a statement, the Interior Ministry argues that access to drone technology "should be structured in such a way that provisions are made to prevent abuse in the form of attacks and spying on people's private lives."
At present, there are no uniform rules for government officials at the national level. The police, in particular, would be hard-pressed to do without the new tool. States including Berlin, Hesse, Lower Saxony, North Rhine-Westphalia and Saxony make no secret of the fact that they use drones. Experts assume that almost all special law-enforcement units at the state level use the unmanned aircraft to unobtrusively capture images during hostage situations or ransom deliveries.
Visibility and the Law
In early August, police were concerned about possible rioting at a neo-Nazi rally in Bad Nenndorf, in Lower Saxony. Thousands were expected to attend a counter-demonstration. Police inspectors Sven Wendt and Matthias Hein took aerial photographs several days before the rally. The two men are part of the state's team of eight remote aircraft operators.
"Battery 14.7, now 80 meters, nose down, click," says Inspector Hein as he sits in a white VW bus, staring at his laptop screen. It displays the flight data for the MD4-200 drone and the image the camera attached to its bottom is transmitting. The goal is to take photos of sensitive intersections to determine where barricades should be set up before the rally. The images are also meant to help brief police officers brought in from other areas and to highlight potential hotspots, escape routes and construction sites where protestors could find rocks to throw.
"Now 90 degrees to the left, click and land -- the battery is dead," says Hein. Wendt, standing on the sidewalk a few meters away, is executing Hein's commands with a remote control unit. The MD4-200, made by Microdone in the western city of Siegen, has already been deployed about 100 times. The first time was during a mission to transport high-level nuclear waste in 2010. The drone has also been used to search for buildings in which marijuana is being grown.
The use of drones during rallies is particularly controversial. "Protestors have to be able to tell whether they're being filmed," says Meta Janssen-Kucz, a member of the Green Party in the state parliament of Lower Saxony. "This isn't the case with drones."
The "non-observable" use of police drones is often prohibited, says Fredrik Roggan, a professor of criminal law at the Lower Saxony Police Academy. According to Roggan, the police are only permitted to fly drones during demonstrations to guide officers. Drone use is only legally permissible, he adds, if the officers ensure "that all participants in the gathering know" that drones are being used.
But, for many, the technology's unique advantage is precisely the fact that drones can remain undetected. One such case is when the German Federal Police uses Aladin and Fancopter drones for what it calls "monitoring/surveillance in the context of smuggling in border areas."
In the use of drones, there is often a thin line between good and evil, as well as between good sense and nonsense. For example, hardly anyone can object to the uninterrupted monitoring of chemical plants. But the constant surveillance of borders comes under criticism from the Heinrich Böll Foundation, which is affiliated with the Green Party. Those who use drones for this purpose, says the foundation, are disregarding "key basic rights, such as the right to asylum and protection against persecution."
Criminals can also avail themselves of the technology, as in the case of a 26-year-old physicist who was convicted in the US state of Massachusetts in July for planning attacks with model aircraft loaded with explosives. Hergen Köhnke, a pastor in northern Germany, is on the other end of the spectrum. He uses a self-built quadrocopter to take aerial photographs of village churches. He has already photographed 60 of the 85 churches in his parish district, and he offers the photos to other pastors for use in letters to their congregations or on postcards.
The technology behind the systems is constantly advancing. Raphael Pirker, a young member of the drone community, flies his aircraft between high buildings in Berlin and New York. A computer science student in Zürich, he uses a type of remote-control flying called "first-person view," in which the drone operator wears virtual-reality goggles that enable him or her to see images the camera is transmitting from the air to the ground, an experience that will soon be available in 3-D. When his drone plunges from a tall building, Pirker has the sensation of diving into the abyss from the perspective of a bird of prey.
In the United States, amateur inventors are working on flying objects that can navigate within buildings and tunnels and carry out tasks without outside control. The US company AeroVironment introduced the "Nano Hummingbird" flying robot last year. As small as a hummingbird, the device is capable of sitting on a branch and recording conversations unnoticed. The US military recently unveiled a prototype for a miniature drone the size of a mosquito.
There is at least one advantage to such tiny devices: If necessary, they can be dispatched with a flyswatter -- as long as you can see them.
REPORTING BY DIETMAR HIPP, HILMAR SCHMUNDT, HANS-ULRICH STOLDT AND ANDREAS ULRICH