By Dan Gettinger
At an election rally on Sunday in Dresden, a drone crash landed in front of Angela Merkel, the German chancellor. After flying above the crowd, the drone was forced to the ground when police found and arrested the operator, a 23-year-old who claimed he was trying to capture aerial pictures of the event. The Pirate Party, a German political party devoted to protecting the web from government regulation, quickly claimed responsibility for the stunt.
Markus Barenhoff, the deputy head of the Pirate Party, told Der Spiegel online, “The intention was two-fold: firstly, to draw attention to the government surveillance scandal, and secondly to put de Maizière’s Euro Hawk failings back on the agenda.”
Earlier this year, Germany cancelled a plan to purchase a pair of Global Hawk surveillance drones when it seemed unlikely that the aircraft would receive certification to fly in European airspace. The $1.3 billion deal with Northrop Grumman, the American manufacturer of the Global Hawk, included plans to modify the drones, creating a new class of “Euro Hawk” unmanned aircraft.
The Global Hawks lacked a collision avoidance system, a protective measure that operates independently from ground control and warns the pilots of other aircraft in the area. As a result, the European Aviation Safety Administration denied certification for the drones to fly anywhere but over unpopulated areas. The cost of adding the avoidance system was estimated to be an extra 250 million euros on top of the 600 million euro price tag for one Global Hawk.
The “Euro Hawk” development project cost the German government 500 million euros before it failed. As a result, Angela Merkel’s government has faced intense scrutiny and criticism. Thomas de Maiziere, Germany’s defense minister, was roundly attacked by the opposition in the Bundestag for failing to notice the deficiencies of the aircraft at an earlier stage of the program. A report from 2012 by the German Defense Ministry appeared earlier this year warning that continuing the “Euro Hawk” development “includes incalculable technical, time and financial risks.” It seems that de Maiziere was either unaware of risks of the program or chose to ignore them.
Center-left parliamentary opposition parties such as the Social Democrats and the Greens have focused on the failed program during the campaign leading up to the recent elections. In June, de Maiziere narrowly survived a vote of confidence in the parliament, prompting speculation that this close aide and friend of Merkel had met the end of his career. While the Merkel cabinet have seemed to have overcome the embarrassment, the drone performance by the Pirates in Dresden shows that the failure remains a sticking point.
The Pirates are not the only people in Germany using drones to prove a point. Earlier this year, Deutsche Bahn, Germany’s rail company, announced its intention to use surveillance drones to protect their railway cars from graffiti artists. In a country that has a long-standing resistance to privacy infringement, the Pirates wanted to show Merkel what it meant to be observed from a drone. Whether or not they also succeeded in returning attention to the waste of public funds on the failed “Euro Hawk,” the Pirates brought drones- large and small- back into the spotlight by way of a fairly simple stunt.