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ORIGINAL FRENCH ARTICLE: Foire du drone en banlieue

by Laurent Mouloud

Trade fair features drones for keeping an eye on working class neighborhoods.

Translated Sunday 28 October 2007, by Gene Zbikowski

Security. The French Ministry of the Interior is to complete the testing of ELSA, an ultra-light aircraft for discretely spying on demonstrations and “sensitive” neighborhoods, by the end of the year.

It’s about a foot-and-a-half long, its thin wings are as light as polystyrene, its two little propellers are made of plastic: at first sight, the aircraft is a sure winner with the model aircraft crowd... were it not for the bug eye of its payload, a camera stuck under the fuselage. It was the star of this year’s Milipol security salon, which closed in Paris on Friday. ELSA (whose initials stand for light aircraft for aerial surveillance) is a drone which will soon be flying over your neighborhood, at least, if you live in one of those so-called “sensitive” housing projects, which are to become the favorite hunting ground for this spy in the sky.

According to the Ministry of the Interior, the police services will complete testing of a prototype by the end of the year, with the hope that ELSA will begin to equip police stations, gradually, in 2008. What is ELSA’s purpose? “The occasional surveillance of big sporting events and demonstrations, but it will also be used when there is urban violence,” said division commissar Olivier Fohanno, who is in charge of the project, without giving further details. “Thanks to ELSA, we will be able to evaluate certain situations more quickly, without having to use an airplane or a helicopter.”

A joystick is used to pilot the drone.

In fact, this ultra-light drone will be disconcertingly and worryingly easy to use. It fits into the trunk of a car and can be assembled in three minutes. It weighs between 500 and 800 grammes; it can take off after rolling down the street for a few yards, and can even be launched by hand. The joystick piloting and the reception of high definition images are carried out via a “control station,” which is simply a laptop computer.

ELSA can fly for about 35 minutes and reach an altitude of 500 metres; and its camera can discretely zoom in on anything within 800 metres. “The aircraft can fly at anything between eight and 80 km per hour, which makes practically stationary flight possible,” pitches a salesman for Sirehna, the little Nantes company that has won the Ministry of the Interior’s competitive bid; “Almost stationary flight is very practical when you want precise images, all the more so as ELSA is particularly quiet and practically undetectable.” How much does one cost? The Ministry of the Interior clears its throat at the indiscrete question and mentions 10,000 euros. Sirehna instead touts a range of “between 15,000 and 20,000 euros.”

The announcement by Minister of the Interior Michèle Alliot-Marie that this kind of aircraft, which up to now has been confined to use by the military, is to be used over working class neighborhoods drew indignant reactions from many elected officials, in particular in the French département of Seine-Saint-Denis, where the first tests were conducted. “The working class neighborhoods need local police officers rather than aerial over-flights,” Socialist Party deputy Daniel Goldberg said with irritation. “Without tight legal limits, the use of drones may well evolve in the course of time from exceptional use in crisis situation to permanent preventive use, thus reinforcing the stigmatization felt by the local people here.”

The French Communist Party also expressed its anger, denouncing “a nauseating and dangerous scenario.” The Communists denounced the fact that “the government thus hopes to put certain neighborhoods under tight surveillance, to the detriment of the most elementary respect for dignity. This is a real provocation whose objective is clear: creating a climate of insecurity a few months before the municipal elections so as to distract people’s attention from the present situation of the government.”

The advocates of the project are not bothered by this kind of argument. For them, observing the population in secret is not a problem. “This is within the framework of the surveillance of citizens, as is done on the Champs-Elysées and elsewhere, and this does not pose any particular legal problems,” Olivier Fohanno said in a tone that broked no disagreement. And to prove its great concern for the people, the Ministry of the Interior, in choosing its drone, even paid attention to the weight of the aircraft. “So as not to injure anyone in case of a crash.” How low can you go?

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