Spatialities of Aerial Surveillance: A critical Study of Border Control by Military Drones in Switzerland.


Silvana Pedrozo

Today a variety of surveillance technologies are increasingly being used by public authorities to observe and control national territories. This includes military drones. In Switzerland, this technology has firstly been used for various purposes such as observation, mapping and training missions since the beginning of the twenty-first century. (Tourancheau, 2005). However, military drones are now mainly associated with new military interests and surveillance strategies, which imply additional goals for unmanned aerial systems. Military drones are now commonly used to manage and survey borders and cross-border regions. (Swiss Air Force Report 2014). Since then, border guards and military officials coordinate missions from their bases to command drone interventions. Such collaborations are therefore on raise because they offer economical and technological advantages for each stakeholder. Indeed, depending on what are the objectives of the missions, drones are able to film and collect a great variety of data – on the chosen environment – for both parties. In this context, military drones imply new geographical, political and security strategies for these actors, which redefine aerial surveillance and control practices on the ground.
In this view, the objective of this paper is to explore empirically how contemporary surveillance and control practices through military drones participate in, and affect, the management of Swiss border regions. More specifically, the article, firstly, offers a broad discussion of three interrelated spatial logics that characterize drone surveillance, relating to the fundamentally (1) mobile, (2) vertical and (3) adaptable gaze on space offered by the technology. These comments allow an initial understanding of how military drones affect and redefine the modalities and functioning of aerial surveillance and control on the Swiss border. Secondly, the paper draws upon the Euclidian vocabulary of points, lines and planes to show how exactly drone surveillance is articulated spatially in the explored case study, and how in turn this affects not only the exercise and spatialities of border control but also the very understanding of the border itself by the involved drone users, as both a ‘linear national boundary’ and as a wider ‘border area’ to monitor and manage.
This discussion insists in particular on a wide range of surveillance devices that are now attached to drones, as exemplified by the retained case study, and that affect greatly the conveyed modalities of aerial control in allowing for now new ways of monitoring, following and detecting people and objects on the ground. For example, the several sensors placed on these remotely piloted aircraft offer detection measures not only out in the open, but also inside buildings and in different modes of transport. Indeed, technological evolutions favor the observation of drug traffickers in stolen vehicles, the detection of migrants in derelict trains or the prosecution of the criminals. Monitoring functions, but also more broadly sensing and controlling functions, consequently tend to be more flexible and targeted thanks to this technology. Thus, the potential of aerial surveillance through drones is described as exponential. However, it is noted that the drones’ capacities also depend on a range of parameters (geographical, technical, metrological or human), which impact on their functions and on its ability to communicate data.

The paper draws upon empirical insights provided by a one-year research from Swiss public authorities relating with the use of military drones in border areas. More specifically, it includes a case study relating to geographical settings of military drone utilizations in Switzerland. This research involves five in-depth interviews with Swiss public actors such as Swiss border guards, air-force pilots and one mobile intervention group (on the ground) composed of four officers. Furthermore, the research relies on the extensive study of military and cross-border documents (engagement maps, annual reports and internal presentations used for briefings of missions) collected from the various stakeholders. Official documents (official reports and legal documents) and national and international press articles are also considered, so as to observe the recent developments of the phenomenon. The study was also conducted by participating in an eight-hour field observation of a drone mission. During this period, many pictures and videos of the mission have been gathered. They provide access to drone’s itineraries and control practices. Thus, this set of empirical data contributes to a deepened understanding of the use of this technology for surveillance in Swiss cross-border regions.
As the Swiss Army drones are relatively old, this analysis will also suggest a range of reflections about the new – more powerful – ones which are to be selected during the course of 2015. Indeed, the acquisition process of six new Israeli drones is still ongoing with Swiss Parliament. (Graffenried, 2012; Fleury, 2013; Dousse,2013). These new models are characterized by a longer endurance and by an increased ability of adaptation. (Swiss Air Force Report, 2014). In addition, these new ones are able to observe and cover the entire Swiss territory, what is not the case today. This new generation of drones will therefore be able to control multiple spaces by varying the camera angle, the scale, the collection and the sorting of data. In this context, their ability to adapt – whether for surveillance or other purposes – is at the heart of their developments. This implies profound changes, notably in terms of surveillance, collaborations (between the public and private sector) and deployments possibilities. In order to highlight these different issues, some lines of thoughts according to the emerging Swiss drones systems are reported. They emphasize the impacts on the aerial surveillance “dispositif”, but also on the controls directly ordered on the ground.

Keywords: surveillance, control, drones, military, technology.

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