The German government is looking to open up the country's airspace for unmanned drones that were previously only used for military purposes.
For hobby spy-enthusiasts, they have been available in Germany for quite a while: For 300 euros ($393), you can pick up a drone at most electronics stores. It's a model-sized helicopter that can be fitted with a camera and used to film videos from above.
The police also have drones, which they use to monitor demonstrations, for example. They were used for the first time about a year ago during protests against a nuclear waste transport and to keep an eye on soccer matches in the state of Saxony.
But police are limited in the extent to which they can employ drones, with strict regulation of range, elevation, and flight times.
Current law says the unmanned flying objects cannot be bigger than a model, and that the skies are reserved for manned flying machines. But that's about to change. A new airspace law, which is set to be approved Thursday, will open the skies for larger drones that have been only used by the military so far.
Avoiding the word
"There is a technological development that needs to be regulated," said a spokesman from the German transport ministry.
Instead of using the military term 'drone,' the ministry prefers to refer to the aircraft as "unmanned aeronautical systems." For the first time, these devices are to be included in air-traffic laws and allowed to "participate equally in air traffic," according to the bill.
"It is not the case that the government is introducing drones," said the ministry spokesman. The law only "creates the category" and allows for a procedure of approval. In addition to use by the police, these aircraft could be introduced to monitor traffic, survey land or in connection with environmental protection measures, the ministry said.
The military uses of drones are quite varied. Before troops from the Bundeswehr go on patrols in Afghanistan, for example, drones are sent over the route to scout out any possible obstacles.
The US military sends drones to attack positions of the Taliban.
Despite falling budgets in many countries, the demand for unmanned aircraft is growing, and German companies are among those profiting.
Whether or not Germany's skies will soon be filled with unmanned aircraft depends on several factors. For one, it remains to be seen how safely automatic aircraft can be steered in heavily-trafficked airspace. After all, three million aircraft cross German skies each year, the highest amount in Europe.
"We don't yet have any information about the operating safety," the transport ministry said.
Safety concerns aren't the only reason the plans to change the laws regarding drones are drawing criticism. Wolfgang Neskovic of the Left party says it's a "constitutional nightmare."
"The use of drones by police is the final remaining puzzle piece for the total technological surveillance of people in public," he said.
Equipped with powerful cameras, the drones would be able to identify who has been spending time where and when, und exactly what they did there, he pointed out.
Neskovic believes the government is trying to push through measures that would lead to fundamental invasions of the private sphere without attracting attention. The suggestion to include drones in air-traffic laws appears harmless when incorporated into a bill that mainly exists to implement various EU policies regarding air traffic. The draft bill was brought to parliament shortly before Christmas.
Data protection debate
The Green party is critical of the use of drones as well.
"That is a very problematic issue," said Konstantin von Notz, a domestic policy spokesman. He is calling on the government to provide precise information about how exactly the drones could be used. Some Green party members are giving their approval to the bill anyway - under the condition that data protection measures be improved.
Germany's data protection commissioner, Peter Schaar. has also weighed in on the subject.
"These systems are capable of filming people and monitoring their movements," he said. "It is also potentially possible to collect data associated with a specific person."
He says data protection measures should be added to the bill. That could mean, for example, that in order for a drone to be approved, data protection standards would have to be met in addition to technical standards.
In parliament, the exact wording of the bill is being negotiated, and it appears as if Schaar's demands will indeed be heeded.
Author: Mathias Bölinger / mz
Editor: Nancy Isenson