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Wednesday, July 23 2014 @ 03:05 AM CDT

France deploys surveillance drones

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A bird, a "sea gull," one meter wide and 60 centimeters long, called "Elsa." Described thus, the project Engin leger pur la Surveillance Aerienne ["Light Device for Aerial Surveillance"] (ELSA) was the star of the police display at the Milipol exhibition dedicated to domestic state security that opened in Paris and brought to Versailles on 9 October [2007]. It is a little drone, equipped with a camera, not heavier than a bottle of water, that can eventually assist the national police in the long-distance surveillance of towns and neighborhoods.

Drones for the surveillance of the outskirts and demonstrations

A bird, a "sea gull," one meter wide and 60 centimeters long, called "Elsa." Described thus, the project Engin leger pur la Surveillance Aerienne ["Light Device for Aerial Surveillance"] (ELSA) was the star of the police display at the Milipol exhibition dedicated to domestic state security that opened in Paris and brought to Versailles on 9 October [2007]. It is a little drone, equipped with a camera, not heavier than a bottle of water, that can eventually assist the national police in the long-distance surveillance of towns and neighborhoods.

"We are not envisioning a surveillance of long duration, military-style," assured Thierry Delville, chief of Technology Services for Domestic Security. "It is a supplementary tool for police interventions." ELSA will be used during large demonstrations and gatherings, but also in the framework of urban violence such as one saw in November 2005. Other examples of scenarios of use advanced by the specialists: the surveillance of the surroundings of a house in which terrorists are installed; the spotting of burning cars; and even zooming in on a group of people, at the margins of a demonstration, so as to locate a carrier of a Molotov cocktail. Since flying over urban zones requires authorization, the drone could not exceed 150 meters of altitude, even if its capacity was 500 meters. With a flight-duration of 40 minutes, it could scan a radius of 2 kilometers. The type of camera carried is variable, and could use infrared to see at night, light-intensification to see in half-light or gray. . . .

"The information and communication systems, which play a vital role in security, must permanently be improved to resist the increasing abilities of criminals," the Minister of the Interior, Michele Alliot-Marie affirmed, at the inauguration of the exhibition, which easily included light devices for aerial surveillance in the equipment of "the police departments of the future." In August, the Sirehna company, based in Nantes, won the call for offers to realize the "silent and almost undetectable" prototype, according to Jean-Pierre Le Goff, CEO of the form. To be delivered at the end of the year, on 15 December, it will then be tested by the police before being -- should the occasion arise -- put into service by the stations, no doubt gradually, due to its estimated cost of 10,000 Euros.

The experiments have already taken place, all in the Seine-Saint-Denis department, to the great discontent of many elected leaders who, they say, were not "forewarned" and who denounced the stigmatization of neighborhoods reputed to be sensitive.

On 14 July 2006, a Cesna airplane, equipped with a remote-controlled video camera, surveilled a portion of the "9-3." An identical scenario was reproduced on 31 December 2006, this time with a thermal camera to detect possible excesses and burned cars at Saint-Sylvestre. More recently, other tests were carried out above the French Stadium, for security during the rugby world tournement. For the partisans of this type of surveillance, the drone is an advantageous replacement for the helicopter -- already used at large gatherings -- which is more spectacular, more noisier and more expensive.

To Daniel Goldberg, the Socialist deputy of Seine-Saint-Denis, things are different. The usage "by civilian forces of devices of military origin," he affirms, "cannot be neutral." Having heard the declarations of Madame Alliot-Marie at the Milipol exhibition, the deputy soonafter responded in a statement that Parliament must take up the subject. "Our neighborhoods are not comparable to the extreme cases of hostage-taking or countries in the midst of civil war," he saud. "Without a strict legal framework, the utilization of drones sooner or later will go beyond exceptional usages to a permanent preventive that thus reinforces the stigmatization that the inhabitants of the [mostly African and Arab] outskirts already feel."

The preemptive response of the Minister of the Interior: "Faced with legitimate and pressing expectations of the citizens, we might be tempted to pay for additonal security with a sacrifice in terms of liberty. This much is clear: this will never be the choice of France -- and it will never be mine."

ELSA, made of foam rubber and small collapsible propellers, like a model airplane, cannot constitute a danger in the advent of a crash, its designers have stated. But the debate on urban fly-overs, with the exception the strategically prohibited zones, of the Seveso type, no doubt has only begun.

(Written by Isabelle Mandraud and published in the 11 October 2007 edition of Le Monde. Translated from the French by Bill Brown, 12 October 2007.)

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