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Police may deploy spy drones

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Tom Hyland

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VICTORIA Police is considering introducing unmanned drone aircraft to assist in operations, following the lead of US authorities who from tomorrow will begin using them for surveillance, searches and car chases.

The move has alarmed civil liberties advocates, who say the technology could be used to spy on individuals.

Victoria Police has confirmed it is assessing so-called unmanned aerial systems (UAS) for ''potential operational use''.

But in a written response to questions from The Sunday Age, a Victoria Police spokeswoman did not spell out what kind of operations. Nor did she reveal how far police plans had advanced.

It is, however, the most explicit statement so far on Victoria Police's interest in acquiring high-tech, remote-controlled drones that can be fitted with high-definition cameras and sensors - and, in some larger versions, weapons.

Other agencies, including Queensland police and arms of the Australian Federal Police, are also interested in acquiring drones.

Last month the Victoria Police air wing hosted an international conference on the potential use of drones. ''Victoria Police will continue to assess the quickly maturing UAS technology market for potential operational use in the future,'' the spokeswoman said.

Liberty Victoria president Spencer Zifcak yesterday called for public debate on the use of drones, warning that strict controls must be in place before any decision was made.

''I would be profoundly concerned about the unregulated use of this technology, by which I mean use without clear rules and regulations about the circumstances in which it can be used,'' Professor Zifcak said. ''On privacy grounds, this will significantly increase the potential for surveillance, not only on political protests but on private activities.''

Peter Hill, a director of V-Tol Aerospace, a Brisbane firm that builds the Warrigal UAS being tested for use by surf lifesavers, agreed privacy concerns had to be addressed.

''It's a grey area,'' Mr Hill said. ''I think it comes down to common sense, but it's definitely an area that needs to be ticked off.''

But Peggy MacTavish, executive director of the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems Australia, an industry-backed body, played down concerns.

''The technology for intruding on privacy already exists,'' she said. ''Check out Google Earth, Google Maps, conventional aviation - this sort of activity had been going on for years. It's not reasonable to focus on this [UAS] industry,'' she said.

Ms MacTavish said operators of unmanned aircraft were already covered by privacy legislation.

Queensland police have already tested a small drone for surveillance and search-and-rescue operations.

Last year, the police chief in the ACT, Roman Quaedvlieg, said drones could be in the air over Canberra within five years.

From tomorrow, regulations in the US will allow police to use camera-carrying drones weighing less than two kilograms and operating under 120 metres within sight of an operator.

Drones are being promoted for use in firefighting, surveying, aerial photography, agriculture, surf lifesaving, searches and news gathering.

Any bid by police to adopt drone technology will require the approval of the Australian Civil Aviation Safety Authority, which is under pressure from commercial operators to allow unmanned aircraft to share airspace with piloted planes within two years.

But CASA, while reviewing regulations to see how it can integrate all types of aircraft, is warning this could be years away due to safety concerns.

A key factor for CASA is how drones, once out of sight of their on-ground human controller, can ''see'' and avoid piloted aircraft.

''The problem is situational awareness. You can fit these things with cameras, but they can't do what a human does, which is look up, down, sideways,'' CASA's Peter Gibson said.

thyland@theage.com.au

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