News Analysis: Drones vs. Graffiti Artists

By Arthur Holland Michel

If you are a graffiti artist, be aware that Germany’s rail company, Deutsche Bahn, has just enlisted drones to make your life harder. The small, 60,000euro drone-copters will fly “almost silently” over German rail yards to “collect evidence” against artists who paint train carriages in the night.  As the BBC reports, this is an unexpected development in a country where the right to privacy is so strictly protected that residents were given the choice to blur their houses on Google’s Street View. But what interests us is that Deutsche Bahn’s drones are an early example of drones being used as flying CCTV cameras. As opposed to the traditional CCTV camera, which is fixed in a single space, the Deutsche Bahn drones are dynamic and, more importantly, mobile. They can follow artists around, collecting greater quantities of “evidence” than would ever be possible with a regular fixed camera. What’s more, since the drones are being deployed to only capture a specific kind of footage, they can have specific capabilities. While CCTV cameras operate constantly,and must therefore be able to capture footage in light and darkness, the Bahn drones only operate at night, and so are equipped with infra-red cameras that can capture nighttime movements with high clarity. In addition, perhaps preempting the cunning of people who paint trains, the drones will fly high enough (about 500 feet) that they will be difficult to detect. And even if a graffiti artist did spot a drone staring down on the yard, there is little that he or she could do about it.

Camover, a German anarchist group, recently gained international attention for their campaign to destroy CCTV cameras in public spaces across German cities. How, one wonders, will they react to the Bahn Drone? (Warning: video contains techno music)

The Deutsche Bahn Drone will be an important experiment in the use of drones as a public surveillance system. It will not only be interesting to see how well the drones work—What happens in a thunderstorm? What happens when it’s foggy?—but also how peacefully the German public will coexist with this new form of super-surveillance. Other institutions, both public and private, who are frustrated with the limited capabilities of CCTV cameras, will be watching. When private companies that maintain public spaces, such as Amtrak or Disneyworld in the U.S., realize the benefits of surveillance drones – as I am sure they already have – they will likely be eager to replace their old-fashioned CCTV systems. If the Bahn drones turn out to be a failure, either practically or in terms of PR, other institutions hoping to fly their own drones might have second thoughts. Therefore, we should be watching the German rail yards too.