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4th Jul 2022

EU steps up funding for drone research

  • Surveillance drones pose questions for people's privacy, Statewatch says (Photo: Chris Hunkeler)

EU defence firms have received hundreds of millions in EU research grants for work on drones, despite rules against funding of military projects.

A report out by the London-based civil liberties watchdog, Statewatch, on Wednesday (12 February), says at least €315 million of EU research money was lavished on the sector in recent years.

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“Of this, almost €120 million has gone towards major security research projects,” it notes.

Rules prohibit the EU’s “Horizon” science scheme from funding military projects.

But the concept of “dual-use technology,” in which equipment can be used for both civilian and military objectives, gives the EU institutions enough leeway to go ahead.

The European Commission says the research is regulated for civilian use.

“It’s true that research can potentially be used for military and civilian use but what is important is that we regulate differently military airspace and civilian airspace,” EU spokesperson Helen Kearns told this website.

She noted the EU’s task is to regulate remotely piloted aircraft in civilian airspace.

“The target of our research is very clearly at their safety use in civilian airspace,” she said.

Unmanned aircraft can be used, for instance, to monitor crops or environmental hazards.

But Statewatch says there is a growing trend to use them for “militarised and repressive” purposes, including law enfrocement and border control, with serious implications for privacy and human rights.

Its survey describes the EU subsidies as a “blank cheque” for Europe’s military corporations.

“It’s easy to see why people are so excited about drones: There are many positive things they could be used for,” Ben Hayes, one of the co-authors of the report, said.

He added there is “a clear direction of travel” in terms of developing drones for high-tech warfare and security surveillance, however.

Some of the EU-funded projects - such as Talos (transportable autonomous patrol for land border surveillance), Perseus (the protection of European seas and borders through the intelligent use of surveillance), and Seabilla (Sea Border Surveillance) - are currently being worked on by EU defence firms Dassault Aviation and Thales.

The Talos project, which received almost €13 million of EU money, also involves Israel Aerospace Industries, a leading maker of lethal drones.

Statewatch notes that EU funding for the sector is set to increase.

It points out that the overall EU budget for security research has tripled from €1.4 billion, under the previous budget period, to €3.8 billion in 2014 to 2020.

Meanwhile, the Brussels-based European Defence Agency (EDA), has, in a parallel programme, paid out some €190 million for military and civilian drone research between 2005 and 2011.

Major arms manufacturers such as Thales, Selex, EADS, and Sagem are among the main recipients. Just over half the money has gone towards research unmanned aerial vehicles.

Last November, defence ministers from seven EU member states also tasked the EDA with drafting a study on joint production of Medium Altitude Long Endurance (Male) vehicles.

The club of seven countries, France, Germany, Greece, Italy, the Netherlands, Poland and Spain, aim to produce the military drones from 2020 onward.

At the same time, EU institutions are pushing to remove the regulatory and technical barriers that currently limit the flight of drones in civilian airspace.

The European Commission published a roadmap in June 2013 to have them flying in civilian air by 2028.

Statewatch says that €70 million budget line aimed at ensuring widespread civilian drone flight was inserted into new EU legislation as “a politically driven priority” despite the fact that there has been no democratic debate on the issue.

Faced with stiff competition from US and Israeli manufacturers, the EU hopes that investment in drones will help create jobs and profits in Europe’s military-industrial complex.

The EU Commission is set to come out with a communication in March on drones and the regulatory hurdles to getting them into civilian airspace.

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