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More businesses are using unmanned aerial vehicles for surveillance and research. While the technology is cost-efficient and practical, some are worried about its potential to violate privacy and data protection laws.
The western-German town of Düren was in turmoil. A small drone was circling slowly and deliberately over the local school. The result: nervous residents, curious glances, frightened whispers. Many locals asked if this was a secret military operation or some sort of new state surveillance program. But in the end it turned out that a photo and film production company had been using the drone to make 360-degree aerial shots.
Such scenes are increasingly common, as more and more private companies in Germany employ the use of unmanned aerial vehicles, commonly known as drones. They're used for photography, map-making and surveillance of large solar farms, industrial complexes, gas pipelines or construction sites. According to an unpublished report by Germany's Federal Ministry of Transport, Building and Urban Development, businesses, universities and individuals have submitted 500 applications to use drones in the last two years, and most of them have been approved.
"Drones are cheaper than keeping a helicopter," explained Wolfgang Wieland, security spokesman for the Green Party's parliamentary faction. "For example, if Deutsche Bahn [Germany's national railway operater] does it, it can monitor its railway network much more easily than with a helicopter."
The police force has already been utilizing drones equipped with cameras to monitor soccer matches and protests and to find concealed cannabis plantations. Meanwhile, universities have been using them to research phenomena such as forest destruction and soil erosion.
More regulation needed
For some, though, this increased use of drones is unsettling. In May 2012 drones were explicitly mentioned in Germany's Aviation Act for the first time, but the law was altered soon after, at the request of Peter Schaar, federal commissioner for data protection and freedom of information. A passage was added, stipulating that companies had to take the issue of data protection into account. "But nobody knows how they do this, or if they refuse, or if they are even aware of it," said Wieland.
Wieland is concerned that, in the future, anyone who walks outside will be at risk of being photographed by a drone. He points out that although companies are officially only allowed to photograph and film on their own premises, "they of course also capture the areas to the right and left."
Ulla Jelpke of Germany's Left party has concerns that companies could use drones to spy on their employees. She also criticizes alleged faults in the government's information policies.
"We - the members of parliament - also don't receive any information about what purposes the drones are being used for," said Jelpke.
Schaar has announced his intention to control the implementation of the law in the future. He points out that filming people constitutes a data protection problem and proposes installing warning signs in areas patrolled by drones. "Concealed video surveillance in public areas should not be allowed," he said.
According to current regulations, drones cannot be heavier than 25 kilograms and must not fly out of their controller's sight. On top of this, private property can only be photographed or filmed with its owner's permission.
Disturbing future scenarios
Every company has the right to apply for permission to use drones for monitoring its premises - and nothing stands in the way of this permission being granted.
"We live in a free country," commented Wieland. "Any company can launch a drone in the air if it has good reasons for it. But I always say that this is like Google Earth, except it can fly directly over buildings and treetops. It is much closer and can deliver extremely sharp images."
He points out that when Google Street View was introduced in Germany, residents who were opposed to it had some rights.
"In this case we had the opportunity to have the photos obscured - but if I don't know that it's happening, I can't do anything about it," added Wieland. The drones' silence is what's dangerous."
The company whose drone aroused suspicion in Düren has received permission to use the device across the entire state of North Rhine-Westphalia. It is financially beneficial, as the business has some large clients. Meanwhile, the Ministry of Transport, Building and Urban Development seems to have recognized drones' business-boosting potential. In a recent report it mentions "major commercial opportunities" for German drone manufacturers.
Author: Arne Lichtenberg / ew
Editor: Ben Knight