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."
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