Spy in the sky?

I’m Peter Webster, chief executive of Corps Security, and this is where I examine the issues affecting the security industry. My thoughts and opinions are intended to generate debate and whether you agree or disagree with them, you’re welcome to post your comments below.


The must-have Christmas present last year – particularly for boys both big and small – was a drone or unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV). While to the uninitiated they might just appear to be a variation on the traditional remote control helicopter, sales of recreational drones are going through the roof with the basic flying craft costing around £50, right up to the sophisticated long range HD video streaming ones costing several thousand pounds. These machines can deliver incredible views captured from above and have the ability to stream video footage to a smartphone or tablet.

It should be remembered, however, that drones are nothing new and the first devices were used by the US military in the Vietnam War as reconnaissance vehicles. More recently, military drones have been fitted with missiles but their use has diversified and during 2014 many column inches were dedicated to the fact that companies such as Amazon and Google were suggesting they can develop them to deliver parcels. While for most people drones are just a bit of harmless fun, there is differing opinion about whether they are good or bad, and whether their use should be more tightly controlled.

I would like to start on a positive note by stating my belief that drones could be very useful in certain scenarios where security companies operate. A prime example is outdoor music concerts or festivals, where a drone could be used to monitor crowds and ensure that people are kept safe. A potentially dangerous situation could be identified early on and personnel on the ground could be deployed to attend before it escalates. Equally, they have great potential when it comes to monitoring remote sites such as reservoirs and oil installations, for example.

These devices can also enhance building access control, particularly in environments where there is a lot of perimeter fencing. A drone high up in the air can easily identify who is coming and going and it could be a lot cheaper than installing CCTV to cover the same area.

So, that’s the positive, what about the negative? There’s no doubt that they are being used for criminal activities, such as spying on people and even listening in on meetings and conversations through the use of advanced microphone technology. It’s something that was discussed at a recent Corps Security Breakfast Briefing by Jason Dibley of QCC Global, a leading expert in technical surveillance countermeasures. While it might sound far-fetched, Jason made it very clear, through a number of examples, that drones are being used in this way.

Then there’s the issue of drones being used where they shouldn’t be – often due to ignorance and stupidity. Last year a drone came within 20ft of a passenger plane as it was about to land at Heathrow Airport, while French authorities issued an alert when drones mysteriously appeared above nuclear power plants.

Perhaps more worrying though is how they could be used for terrorist purposes. Putting it simply, if a drone can drop a parcel then it can drop a bomb or missile, and last year Sir David Omand, a former director at GCHQ, warned that shopping centres, sporting events and public gatherings could face chemical or biological attacks by terror groups using drones. He noted that although such a scenario has so far not posed a real danger to UK citizens, it is a threat that the authorities took seriously during the London 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games.

Dealing with drones that are being used for malicious purposes presents its own set of problems though. Some of these devices weigh around 20kg and it is simply not sensible to just shoot them out of the sky or even to jam their operating signals – particularly if there is suspicion that it is carrying a bomb. In densely populated areas the consequences of such action could be catastrophic.

There have been calls for tighter regulation regarding this equipment and how it is used. However, introducing licenses and purchasing restrictions would only have an impact on legitimate users. Would it make a difference to criminals and terrorists? I think not. There are clearly good and bad uses for this technology and while there are no easy answers when it comes to how they are used, it is a debate that must continue.

25/02/2015… Since writing there has been some very interesting coverage on the BBC about mysterious drones flying above Paris at night.  See link.

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2 thoughts on “Spy in the sky?

  1. Very interesting blog post this, thoroughly enjoyed reading it. Although I disagree with the content ! I’ll be following your posts with great interest sir .

    S G Mallis

  2. Sean, thank you for your comments, the whole point of the blogs is to create a debate on important topics so your response was most welcome. You and I have subsequently corresponded on Twitter and I was pleased that your final tweet said that the blog was “really interesting”. It is very encouraging to receive feedback, positive or negative, and hopefully you may have inspired others to contribute. Best wishes. Peter

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