Unmanned surveillance drones – or remotely piloted aircraft equipped for spying and fighting – are a theme politically charged across the European Union. There are several reasons for that, all of them being politically charged. First of all, it is because of the civilian toll taken by America’s use of armed drones in Afghanistan, Pakistan and other conflict areas. Therefore, the European Parliament calls upon the EU member states to ban the use of drones in extrajudicial killings and to come up with ethical standards for their use. The first step in this direction was a non-binding resolution adopted earlier this year, in which lawmakers demanded greater transparency in the use of EU funding for research and development of drone-related technology.
In a separate, but at the same time closely related development, the downing of the Malaysian Airlines flight in eastern, conflict-torn part of Ukraine has drawn attention to the possibilities of how drones could help the EU with respect to surveillance operations in warzones. After the passenger aircraft crashed in a fireball, rebels fighting Ukrainian government forces restricted for the first few days access to the debris and manipulated with evidence, including bodies, before investigators were finally allowed to access what has been described “the world’s largest crime scene”. In this particular case, when sending in manned surveillance aircraft would have been a risky business, it could be argued that an unmanned EU surveillance drone, designed to operate in sensitive areas, could have clearly helped in the vital early stages of the Malaysian Airlines flight disaster.
As a matter of fact, however, the EU has been facing criticism for approving drone studies financed by Horizon 2020, or the European framework program for research and innovation, despite bans on the use of such funds for military purposes. Opponents especially criticize that fact that this research is being done without public scrutiny, real debate and transparency. But there are also concerns about interference with air traffic regulator and potential disasters that could be caused by the absence of the pilots who are not present in the cockpit. On the other hand, Eurodrones are also seen as having the potential to bolster the EU’s ability to monitor illegal migration across remote borders and the Mediterranean, or augmenting overstretched search, rescue and humanitarian operations within Europe and in facilitating the projection the EU’s soft power to foreign countries.