The Dark Side of Drones: Big Brother in Germany's Skies

By SPIEGEL Staff

Declines in the size and price of unmanned flying devices have led to an explosion in their public and private deployment in Germany. Despite their many benefits, the murky legal environment has many worried that drones could be used for unlawful purposes.

It's the first Thursday in August, and the air above Wacken, a town in the northern German state of Schleswig-Holstein, is filled with the shrill screeching of electric guitars and the rhythmic hammering of drums. On the stage below, the band Sepultura is getting fans in the mood for the world's biggest heavy metal festival.

A small, remote-controlled aircraft, a drone, rises up into the gray, cloud-filled sky. Each of the four arms of the round device, a quadrocopter, is equipped with spinning rotors, and a camera is attached to the bottom. The camera is about to document the festivities on the ground for the Wacken commemorative DVD, which is already a tradition. The festival organizer thought it would be a nice idea to try filming from the air this time.

At first, the eye in the sky, with a diameter of one meter (about 3 feet), hovers unnoticed above the crowd. But then the first fans discover the strange object and beginning expressing their outrage over the eerie observer by sticking their fists and middle fingers into the air. They become increasingly hostile, and soon shoes and beer cans are flying through the air, aimed at the drone.

Frustrated, the drone pilot steers the device, an AR 100-B, out of the danger zone.

But not entirely.

The festival organizer announces that he will refrain from further flights near the fans "for security reasons." He is worried about the safety of both the concertgoers in Wacken and the aircraft itself. A high-end drone like the one he is using costs about €100,000 ($130,000), and it's not the sort of thing he wants to see crash into a field after being downed by a beer can.

Explosion in Use

The AR 100-B, made by AirRobot, a company based in the western German town of Arnsberg, can carry up to 300 grams (11 ounces) of equipment, is digitally controlled and is also being used by the German military, the Bundeswehr, in Afghanistan. Although initially designed for military purposes, the devices have now been used outside war zones for some time. There are rumors online that the photos of British royal Kate Middleton sunbathing topless in France were shot using remote-controlled drones.

The unmanned aircraft are constantly sailing through German airspace. Drones carry cameras and video recorders, infrared sensors, measuring devices and radar technology. High-tech models like the AR 100-B are available from mail-order electronics stores, as are do-it-yourself quadrocopters. The devices were a hot topic at the ILA Berlin Air Show in mid-September, where experts demonstrated how the aircraft can behave in a swarm and be designed to be even smaller than they already are. Drones currently represent "the most dynamic segment in (the) aviation industry," according to the event's brochure.

Police and firefighters use drones to monitor protests and borders. They film crime scenes from above and measure levels of toxic materials in the air during major fires. Companies deploy drones to inspect pipelines and measure progress on construction sites. Architects, surveyors and photographers also use the airborne assistants.

The success story of computers seems to be repeating itself. The same developments that once helped Commodore achieve a breakthrough with its C64 home computer are now propelling the high-flying success of drones: miniaturization, plunging prices and a large, creative DIY community.

"Just eight years ago, most systems went for more than €100,000," says Heinrich Warmers, a professor of electrical engineering at the Bremen University of Applied Sciences. "But, today, I can buy the entire control technology, including a compass and GPS, on a single chip for only €10." For about €100, amateur spies and neighborhood busybodies can buy a small helicopter equipped with a camera and a memory card from the mail-order company Pearl. Advertising for the device promises "thrilling videos from a bird's-eye view."

Worries about 'Total Surveillance'

For relatively little money, drones are making a new form of private and public surveillance possible. "It's a revolution in the sky," says Wolfgang Neskovic, a member of the German parliament, the Bundestag, for the far-left Left Party. He also describes it as "a constitutional nightmare."

The miniature aircraft operate in a legal gray zone -- and it's about more than just the question of having air supremacy over a neighbor's backyard. Although regulations establish a framework for unmanned aviation, much remains contradictory, poorly thought-out and vague. An activity that is permitted in the northern city of Kiel could very well be illegal in the southern city of Stuttgart. Drones are taking off, but the legislative branch of government isn't keeping up.

Germany has yet to see a significant political discussion of the constitutional and privacy-related consequences of the emerging technology. Many lawmakers in Berlin only became familiar with the issue when the federal government had to harmonize Germany's Air Traffic Act with European regulations at the end of last year. While they were at it, lawmakers decided to incorporate new regulations for unmanned aircraft into the law.

At the time, Jan Mücke, the parliamentary state secretary at the Federal Transportation Ministry, assured parliamentarians that the government wasn't interested in making drones permissible on a large scale. Instead, it merely wanted lawmakers to create a legislative foundation "so that technical, legal and other underlying conditions can be defined" because, as Mücke noted, unmanned aviation was likely to increase. In other words, it was simply a question of planning ahead in what Mücke viewed as a completely harmless development.

"In a cloak-and-dagger operation, the federal government tried to pull the wool over the parliament's eyes," says Neskovic, who is also a former federal judge. The applicable passage, he notes, was slipped into the Air Traffic Act in the wake of other resolutions. As a result, Neskovic explains, the government will be able to set all future regulations by administrative order, thereby sidestepping the Bundestag. "The use of drones is the last piece of the puzzle for total technological surveillance," Neskovic says. "Citizens should be making a huge stink and fighting this."

Proving Their Worth

There was little resistance in the Bundestag at the beginning of the year, when a majority voted to approve the amendment. Members of the Left Party voted against it, while those of the Green Party abstained. Neskovic continues to voice his concerns, but it's a lonely battle because the flying surveillance devices have already proven their worth in practice many times over.

In the eastern state of Thuringia, a Carolo P 200 unmanned aircraft provided images of more than 3,000 hectares (7,400 acres) of forest after a 2010 storm. The photos were used to map damaged trees to help avert an infestation of bark beetles.

At the massive production site of the chemical giant BASF in the southwestern city of Ludwigshafen, the in-house fire department flies its digital scouts over smokestacks, flare booms and other facilities to conduct inspections. "This saves a lot of money in terms of cranes and scaffolding," says BASF fireman Siegfried Fiedler.

At a large construction site for the new campus of the Bielefeld University of Applied Sciences, site managers routinely sends video-equipped drones made by PHT Airpicture, a firm headquartered near the northwestern city of Gütersloh, into the air. "We know exactly where what is being done and when, and whether there are delays," says PHT Managing Director Peter Smiatek. "The drones always fly along the same route, which we have pre-determined using GPS."

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