Drones on the margins

Much has been made of the potential of drones to assist police operations or to monitor environmental degradation; however, it appears that the surveillance of borders may well prove to be one of the more popular uses of the domestic drone.

In the UK, this potential is believed to have been explored by the South Coast Partnership, a collaboration between BAE systems, the UK Border Agency, Kent and Essex Police and other agencies.  The use of drones in this context emerged in the media in 2009, and was supported by Freedom of Information (FOI) responses, which stated that Kent Police were looking at the possible use of this technology.  Recently released minutes from a UAS Steering Group at ACPO, via an FOI request, have highlighted the ongoing engagement between BAE Systems and these public agencies, and the opportunities offered by drones.  For example, note is made of the low cost option drones provide to address the challenge of smuggling in the English Channel.  However, it is unclear as to the current status of this partnership and if indeed drones were supplied and utilised in this context.  An October 2012 FOI response showed that Kent Police, “holds no information in relation to your request. Kent Police does not own, operate or have access to any form of ‘drone’.” which indicates that this project may well not have been pursued.

In the United States, the immigration reform bill, currently wending its way through the legislative process, seeks to hugely increase the government’s surveillance capacity at the border with Mexico.  With a proposed injection of funds, the current fleet of 10 surveillance drones on the south-west border would be substantially increased, enabling them to be deployed “24 hours per day and for seven days per week”.

A Freedom of Information lawsuit filed by the Electronic Frontier Foundation resulted in the publication of a 2010 report to Congress, entitled “Concept of Operations CBP’s [Customs and Border Patrol] Predator B unmanned aircraft systems”.   The report sets out the Department’s use of this technology as a surveillance tool along the United States’ borders.  However, of greatest concern is the comment on page 63 of the report, which highlighted the potential to arm these drones with “expendables  or non-lethal weapons designed to immobilize TOIs” [Targets of Interest].  While no detail is provided on the type of ‘non-lethal weapons’, perhaps a clue as to the approach taken by the CBP can be found in a factsheet focused on the use of Predator B, which notes that “The CBP UAS program focuses operations on the CBP priority mission of anti-terrorism by helping to identify and intercept potential terrorists and illegal cross-border activity.”  In this respect, the protection of US borders is as much as keeping out illegal immigrants as protecting national security from a terrorist threat.  This latter principle thus potentially provides the legal, and ethical space, for the employment of non-lethal solutions to these challenges.  However, key within this must be respect of human rights law.  We have all seen the consequences of the use of non-lethal (though perhaps less lethal would be a better description) law enforcement tools, from tasers on the streets of Manchester, to the use of new generation plastic bullets, AEPs, in public order situations in Belfast.  A subsequent statement released by the CBP to news outlets indicated that there were currently no plans to arm these drones.  However, the vague wording of this statement appears to indicate that the policy potential remains in place.

The EU has similarly awoken to the opportunities of drone use as method of ensuring border integrity.  The EUROSUR project, is a

pan-European border surveillance system having three main objectives: – to reduce the number of irregular migrants entering the EU undetected, – to reduce the number of deaths of irregular migrants by saving more lives at sea, and – to increase the internal security of the EU as a whole by contributing to the prevention of cross-border crime.

Within this project is a commitment to assessing the viability of drones to provide surveillance coverage of land and sea borders, as shown by this 2012 document on the operational challenges of drone use.  Research and development into drone use in this context continues, and EUROSUR is set to launch in October 2013.  Claims by the EU that this use will meet the challenges posed by vulnerable refugees at sea, and enable the provision of timely rescue, have been disputed by a report by Heinrich Böll Foundation which commented that “Maritime rescue services are not part of EUROSUR and border guards do not share information with them, however vital this may be.”  In this respect, it seems more likely that the research and development of drones as part of EUROSUR has a greater resonance with broader, European Commission efforts, to ensure European competitiveness in the development and manufacturer of civilian drones.

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