Germany's national railway is testing the use of mini-drones to curb damage to its trains from graffiti. Experts call the move pointless and excessive, saying that varnish for trains could solve the problem instead.
"In ten years, we're going to have a sky full of drones," predicts Wolfgang Wieland of Germany's Green Party. The party's speaker on domestic security issues warns that people need to be giving serious thought to how the process can be reined in.
But Deutsche Bahn, Germany's national railway, maintains it is doing the right thing with its plans to employ drones to prevent graffiti. The company said in a press release that more than 14,000 cases of graffiti were discovered in 2012, resulting in more than 7 million euros ($9.09 million) in damages. Now Deutsche Bahn is investigating whether drones could be used to curb sprayers. A Deutsche Bahn spokesman said that in the coming weeks, mini-helicopters will be tested only above property belonging to the company.
The unmanned flight devices cost around 60,000 euros each. They can be steered from the ground and are nearly silent because they are built with quiet electric motors and small rotors. The company plans to equip them with infrared cameras and use the drones above its freight areas and storage tracks to discover graffiti artists.
The railway's plans are perfectly legal, as long as the drones do not fly too high and observe only premises belonging to Deutsche Bahn.
But Elmar Giemulla, an expert on air and traffic law, tells DW he thinks the use of drones is largely senseless. Giemulla points out that since the drone pilots do not need licenses to steer the devices, they can only be flown within one's range of vision. "If I can see the flight device as the person steering it, then other people can see it as well."
When darkness falls, then the drones must be lit up in order for their position to be determined by those operating the devices. But, as Giemulla points out, that could very well play into the hands of those intending to spray surfaces.
Cops and robbers
Lawyer Patrick Gau takes Giemulla's argument a step further. One of Gau's specialties is the issue of graffiti, and he knows how sprayers think. He believes they will see it as a game of cops and robbers. Once those intending to spray graffiti discover the drones, then they'll simply move on to the next available spot where no drones operate.
"So the whole thing just gets shifted elsewhere," the lawyer said.
In fact, the mini-helicopters might even incite more graffiti. "It will probably lead to cases where you'll see a YouTube video in which such drones are filmed, followed by two people who spray a quick image just to show: We can outsmart the Deutsche Bahn," Gau said.
Furthermore, Gau believes the use of drones is completely disproportionate with the crime. "We're really using a sledgehammer to crack a nut here," he commented.
Spraying graffiti on trains is an offense of the lowest magnitude, the lawyer says, even though Deutsche Bahn intends to make quite an uproar about it. Police officers, on the other hand, can only use drones when trying to uncover who is behind very serious crimes.
Gau suggests instead that the train company invest in special varnish for its vehicles. Such finishes are already used elsewhere, and they prevent paint from spray cans from really sticking to surfaces. It can be very easily removed.
"Why is Deutsche Bahn not investing in varnishes for its trains rather than arming itself with drones?" he wonders.
Google Earth with live images?
Green politician Wolfgang Wieland categorically rejects the use of surveillance drones within cities due to privacy concerns.
"If I'm laying out with little on in my backyard, then I would like to be certain that I'm not being observed and filmed from above," he said. He fears that eventually a kind of permanent Google Earth with live images could be developed if people do not draw a line.
However, Wieland also says he could imagine using drones to keep lookout on the long rural stretches of train tracks to curb the theft of metal. The long track segments would require drones steered remotely, which is forbidden under existing laws, says Elmar Giemulla.
"At the moment, that's not possible," he said.