By Paul Lewis
Police in the UK are planning to use unmanned spy drones, controversially deployed in Afghanistan, for the ”routine” monitoring of antisocial motorists, protesters, agricultural thieves and fly-tippers, in a significant expansion of covert state surveillance.
The arms manufacturer BAE Systems, which produces a range of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) for war zones, is adapting the military-style planes for a consortium of government agencies led by Kent police.
Documents from the South Coast Partnership, a Home Office-backed project in which Kent police and others are developing a national drone plan with BAE, have been obtained by the Guardian under the Freedom of Information Act.
They reveal the partnership intends to begin using the drones in time for the 2012 Olympics. They also indicate that police claims that the technology will be used for maritime surveillance fall well short of their intended use – which could span a range of police activity – and that officers have talked about selling the surveillance data to private companies. A prototype drone equipped with high-powered cameras and sensors is set to take to the skies for test flights later this year.
Five other police forces have signed up to the scheme, which is considered a pilot preceding the countrywide adoption of the technology for “surveillance, monitoring and evidence gathering”. The partnership’s stated mission is to introduce drones “into the routine work of the police, border authorities and other government agencies” across the UK.
BAE drones are programmed to take off and land on their own, stay airborne for up to 15 hours and reach heights of 20,000ft, making them invisible from the ground.
Far more sophisticated than the remote-controlled rotor-blade robots that hover 50-metres above the ground – which police already use – BAE UAVs are programmed to undertake specific operations. They can, for example, deviate from a routine flightpath after encountering suspicious activity on the ground, or undertake numerous reconnaissance tasks simultaneously.
The surveillance data is fed back to control rooms via monitoring equipment such as high-definition cameras, radar devices and infrared sensors.
Previously, Kent police has said the drone scheme was intended for use over the English Channel to monitor shipping and detect immigrants crossing from France. However, the documents suggest the maritime focus was, at least in part, a public relations strategy designed to minimise civil liberty concerns.
“There is potential for these [maritime] uses to be projected as a ‘good news’ story to the public rather than more ‘big brother’,” a minute from the one of the earliest meetings, in July 2007, states.
Behind closed doors, the scope for UAVs has expanded significantly. Working with various policing organisations as well as the Serious and Organised Crime Agency, the Maritime and Fisheries Agency, HM Revenue and Customs and the UK Border Agency, BAE and Kent police have drawn up wider lists of potential uses.
One document lists “[detecting] theft from cash machines, preventing theft of tractors and monitoring antisocial driving” as future tasks for police drones, while another states the aircraft could be used for road and railway monitoring, search and rescue, event security and covert urban surveillance.
Under a section entitled “Other routine tasks (Local Councils) – surveillance”, another document states the drones could be used to combat “fly-posting, fly-tipping, abandoned vehicles, abnormal loads, waste management”.
Senior officers have conceded there will be “large capital costs” involved in buying the drones, but argue this will be shared by various government agencies. They also say unmanned aircraft are no more intrusive than CCTV cameras and far cheaper to run than helicopters.
Partnership officials have said the UAVs could raise revenue from private companies. At one strategy meeting it was proposed the aircraft could undertake commercial work during spare time to offset some of the running costs.
Military drones have been used extensively by the US to assist reconnaissance and airstrikes in Afghanistan and Iraq.
But their use in war zones has been blamed for high civilian death tolls.