France’s Eye in the Sky

Meet Elsa: she just celebrated her “coming out” party. Her choice of venue might at first seem strange to you – it was the Milipol Internal State Security Exhibition that was just held in Paris – but not when you realize that Elsa is not a sweet-sixteen debutante, but rather a French-made remotely-piloted, camera-equipped unmanned flying vehicle. She’s not so much into overseas travel – she has no plans to go visit her American-made counterparts in Iraq, for example, mainly because France had the good sense to stay out of there from day one. No, as the Dutch newspaper De Volkskrant reports today (Unmanned Aircraft Against Rioters), she’s just a stay-at-home sort of girl – with “far away eyes,” as the Rolling Stones would put it – developed to help the French police keep tabs on evil-doers.

(Yes, that’s right: I caught this news item on the website of a Dutch newspaper, but could not locate a counterpart to the story on any item from my RSS feeds of French-language publications. Make of that what you will.)

Elsa goes into her extensive testing phase next year, when she’ll test and refine her claimed abilities to stay aloft up to forty minutes at a time, flying at altitudes between 150 and 500 meters to survey an area of “two kilometers” – presumably Volkskrant correspondent Ariejan Korteweg meant “two square kilometers there. That’s handy for keeping an eye on things; in the first instance you can just consider Elsa-class piloted flying vehicles as high-and-mobile closed-circuit security cameras. But, unlike such classic cameras, Elsa and her sisters are also readily deployable when riots like those that raged throughout Paris’ suburbs in 2005 break out – or, as Korteweg writes, “also at big demonstrations.”

Of course, many feel uneasy – or worse – at the idea of adapting such technology that has heretofore been employed solely for military ends to civilian security objectives. How exactly does such a flying camera-drone belong at “big demonstrations” in a country which is supposed to allow free political expression? And how exactly does Elsa belong flying over my town? asked Gilbert Roger, the mayor of Seine-Saint-Denis, a suburb of Paris, one of the areas afflicted by those 2005 riots, and the experimental subject of a recent early-stage Elsa fly-over.

How indeed? But American authorities have already proceeded far beyond such questions, as is suggested in a recent Washington Post article (so of course in English, check it out: Dragonfly or Insect Spy? Scientists at Work on Robobugs). And with their insect-sized “bugs” (in both senses of the word) they are far ahead in that all-important area of miniaturization as well.

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