Making New Markets: ParcAberporth and the commercialisation of drone technology
The western Welsh county of Ceredigion is home to Danger Area D201, a former RAF missile testing ground, now converted into a 22km x 1.5km restricted airspace for the testing of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs). The area is the embodiment of the tangled relationships existing between corporate, governmental and private commercial interests. A section of the old RAF land is now operated by arms giant QinetiQ; the runway is owned by the same private businessman who runs the local airport; and at the centre of this hub of UAV promotion is the ParcAberporth facility, made possible, and owned by, the Welsh Assembly.
Most controversially, ParcAberporth is the UK testing ground for Elbit Systems; a company whose drones have been highlighted by several groups, including NGO Amnesty International, for the indiscriminate destruction they have wrought in Gaza. Less well publicised is the massive effort ParcAberporth and the Astraea coalition are making to commercialise UAVs and expand their market beyond the military to entirely 'civilian' applications.
Elbit and Israel
Elbit Systems is Israel’s largest arms and security corporation. Elbit has absorbed seven companies since 2000 and now employs over 10,000 people, as well as presiding over a considerable network of subsidiaries and affiliated corporations. Aside from testing its products at ParcAberporth, Elbit also operates a UK subsidiary, UAV Engines of Litchfield, whose engines are incorporated into many of the company’s drones. ‘Security’ equipment developed and provided by Elbit is instrumental in maintaining and expanding Israel’s illegal siege of Gaza and occupation of the West Bank. Most significantly, Elbit provides electronic detection equipment, which is being used in the construction of Israel's apartheid wall through the West Bank, and supplies drone technology used extensively in Israel’s attacks on Gaza. Information collated by human rights organisations B’Tselem, the Palestinian Centre for Human Rights (PCHR) and Al-Mezan Centre for Human Rights suggests that 87 civilians were killed by drones during January’s Operation Cast Lead. When challenged by Amnesty International, local MPs and other campaigners, over potential complicity in the Gaza massacre, the Welsh Assembly has stated firmly that it "wouldn't knowingly invest in any project that could be used in any form of human rights abuse". This statement is, however, rather at odds with the admission of the UK Government's Department of Business that it was, in actuality, uncertain about what happened to drone engines sold to Israel once they got there.
The Growing Unmanned Market
UAVs form part of a developing trend characterised by the minimising of human control of, or involvement with, ‘security’ and ‘defence’ technologies. Be it a biometric access interface, smart-cameras programmed to identify ‘terrorist behaviour’ at airports or the British military recruiting UAV operators by promoting their work as comparable to playing video games, state repression and corporately sponsored violence are changing their mechanisms to keep human agents at a distance from their actions. This is of course very useful for any party engaged in dehumanising or murderous activities. Human security guards might have qualms about the racial profiling they are asked to engage in, machines do not. It is certainly a lot easier to blow up dots on a screen than it is to sit in a plane and fire explosives into civilian homes. Many companies working to create increasingly sophisticated unmanned military equipment are simultaneously developing completely robotic technologies. QinetiQ, the arms manufacturer that operates part of the Welsh UAV testing facility, is one of the companies leading this push, creating robots for the land, sea and aerospace sectors. Although those developing this equipment place the emphasis very much on “protecting troops....from a safe distance”, these technologies could be seen to be, in essence, making human soldiers redundant, creating an automated military machine with almost no need for propaganda or self-made justifications.
The Astraea Coalition
Although it is marketed as such, the growth of unmanned military technologies is not an incidental development inherent to technological progress. The rapid expansion of drone technologies is being pushed for by a veritable super consortium of arms companies, UK government agencies and universities, under the name Astraea (Autonomous Systems Technology Related Airborne Evaluation & Assessment)*. These include: BAE Systems, Thales, Rolls Royce, Agent Oriented Software and QinetiQ; the South West of England Regional Development Agency, South East Economic Development Agency, Scottish Enterprise and the North West Regional Development Agency; and the universities of Loughborough, Sheffield, Lancaster and Aberystwyth, among others. State involvement in Astraea is ‘led’ by the Welsh Assembly and, as such, Astraea receives half its funding from the public sector, constituting £16million in total.
Astraea is in the first phase of a three year ‘programme’, whose stated mission includes not only the development of drone technologies, but also their “validation” for “unrestricted use”. There is no ‘evaluation’ or ‘assessment' of drone use at the heart of this programme at all; the organisation's clearly worded aim is to rewrite European airspace regulations in order that UAVs can be deployed widely for ‘civilian’ uses. Astraea is working to have previously manned flights replaced by drones in, for example, emergency situations where a location must be viewed from above. The organisation is even jumping on the greenwash bandwagon, making much of the potential use of drones to monitor environmental situations on land or at sea.
This is, perhaps, not so sinister in itself, but the language of both Astraea and its component institutions is rife with commercial expansionism. QinetiQ writes plainly on its corporate website that the civilian market for its UAVs and other unmanned products has not yet been sufficiently “exploited”. Even the Welsh Assembly states in its own report on the development of ParcAberporth that “the potential for the civil market is considerable if the barriers that impede the wide deployment of civil systems can be overcome”. One of Astraea’s ‘programme points’ is simply named “Route to Compliance”. Astraea and its ‘corporate partners’ are effectively creating their own market, openly and aggressively seeking to change international airspace regulations, with a host of government departments to back them up. If successful, they’re looking at a very lucrative future; Astraea cites studies estimating that the European drones market it is creating will be worth €1.2billion over the next decade.
The implications of government clubbing together with corporate interests to forge and legitimise markets for the products of arms companies are of course serious. Equally questionable are the potential ‘civilian applications’ of new UAVs. It seems unlikely that anyone looking at over €1billion profits will be content with supplying only emergency services and vaguely environmental enterprises. Drone use for police surveillance is already widespread in the USA, and, as is being seen with ‘non lethal’ weapons, there is much money to be made for military equipment companies selling their wares to police forces. Unmanned aerial surveillance has been spotted in the UK, with a small drone being used to spy on anti-fascist protestors at last summer’s British National Party (BNP) festival in Derby. With Astraea seeking a carte blanche for drone use in all European airspace, it is not unlikely that both UAV companies and state agencies will take full advantage of this.
Campaign group Bro Emlyn for Peace and Justice (BEPJ) are calling for action against drone testing at ParcAberporth. You can find more about the campaign, plus an extensive news archive about UAV testing in Wales, on their website: www.bepj.org.uk/
*On a lighter note, it may interest you to know that the name Astraea is also that of the ancient Greek deity, Astraea, the 'star-maiden', who is, ironically enough, associated with both ‘new eras’ and ‘justice’.