Russia uses drones to spy on street protests

Michael Bastasch | Contributor

As the use of drones in U.S. airspace continues to grow and fuel concerns over privacy, foreign governments have jumped on the bandwagon and see drones as a way to monitor their own citizens. Wired reports that the Russian government is stockpiling drones to monitor street protests.

“We need a program for unmanned aircraft. Experts say this is the most important area of development in aviation,” Russian President Vladimir Putin said in early June. “We need a range of all types, including automated strike aircraft, reconnaissance and other types.”

Russia will reportedly spend around $13 billion on unmanned aerial vehicles through 2020, according to Wired.

Russia’s leading manufacturer of unmanned aircraft, Zala Aero, has provided the Russian government with over 70 “unmanned systems, each containing several aircraft,” according to Wired.

A Zala executive commented that nearly every Interior Ministry group has a drone now, including a government favorite, the Zala 421-08M, a small unmanned vehicle equipped with a camera that can fly for 90 minutes at an altitude of nearly 12,000 feet.

“At the right angle, a drone like this can take a quality snapshot of a car’s license plate,” noted Wired.

However, capturing faces would be more difficult. “Capturing faces in any detail would however require a very heavy drone with a good camera; more precisely, with a heavy, specialized platform,” a Zala executive told Open Democracy Russia.

“They will be used mainly to maintain public order during local demonstrations and marches, when we shall be keeping watch from the air to avoid any incidents,” said Sergei Kanunnikov, head of the air operation center in the eastern Amur Oblast’s Department of the Interior.

Models like the Zala 421-06 can be used to this effect as well — it can fly for about one and a half hours at an altitude of more than 6,500 feet.

Unmanned drones will also make an appearance at the Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia, in 2014 and at the London games this year.

Russia began using drones for monitoring the streets during when the Interior Ministry deployed a Zala 421-04M to monitor street protests at a 2006 G8 summit in St. Petersburg.

In the U.S., there are currently 106 organizations operating 207 drones over U.S. airspace, reports the Houston Chronicle. This number is set to increase as the FAA speeds up drone approvals in U.S. airspace by 2015. They are being used for a variety of reasons including providing real-time surveillance on the U.S. border with Mexico.

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