Willard Foxton traces the full story of an abortive project by Kent Police to secure the Olympics with 72ft-long robotic Zeppelins.
I realise it sounds ludicrous, but that standfirst isn’t a spoof. Why on earth would a Police force in the UK need to buy cutting edge airship technology? Why would they want to test it over the V music festival? How is it possible that they get upset if you call their robot controlled aeroplane a “drone”? Here at the Kernel, we’ve seen documents that tell the comprehensive story, from beginning to ignominious end.
It’s a classic yarn of how the public sector can get wrapped around the little finger of unscrupulous contractors; how the Police totally disregard civil liberties; how organisations can be convinced one new piece of technology that will solve all of their problems and how buying unproven technology can promise to save money, but end up costing a fortune.
Where it all began
In 2007, an Assistant Chief Constable in the Kent Police called Allyn Thomas launched a project which had the stated aim of making drone surveillance Zeppelins, hovering over us, watching our every move, an everyday part of British life.
Thomas had been asked to look into buying a new helicopter. He sat down for a meeting with BAE systems, who told him all about how their latest drone (called HERTI) was a “fully autonomous small aircraft”. BAE promised that by adopting drones, Kent Police could save thousands of pounds compared to a conventional aircraft. ACC Thomas left a convert: helicopters were out, and drones were the future.
Two things before I go on. First, when quoting ACC Thomas’ emails, I apologise for the unhealthy amount of management jargon that appears in them. He’s very big on “completing the storyboard”, “creating a vision” and “empowering the plan”, and that sort of thing. Not quite Bobbie on the Beat vernacular, this.
Secondly, as will become apparent, when dealing with people who build, operate, or plan to deploy unmanned aircraft, you should never refer to their creepy toys as “drones”. It may as well be a racial slur. In one memorable phone call while researching this project, I called a civil servant in the MOD, and asked to speak to their “drone expert”.
He reacted as if I’d poured a cauldron of boiling water over him. “We don’t fly drones. We fly unmanned autonomous aerial vehicles.”
(Of course, at that point, in true Kernel style, I pointed out that, actually, what he flew was a desk. Anyway, back to the story.)
No planes, no helicopters…
It was apparent from the off that this would be an expensive project, as introducing a nascent, unproven technology often is. Realising this, ACC Thomas decided to create a body which brought together several organisations with an interest in “bringing this technology into the civilian market”. As well as BAE systems – who, of course, stood to make a fortune if the drones worked – Thomas was able to rope in representatives from Her Majesty’s Revenue & Customs (HMRC) and The UK Border Authority (UKBA).
They called the group the “South Coast Partnership”, ostensibly so all the bodies could collaborate on developing a drone system which could be used over the “maritime environment” (the sea, to you and me). But they included a rider that the group “does not exclude potential stakeholders who are not South Coast based”, and that there was “no Legal meaning to word Partnership”.
The Non-South-Coast not-really-a-partnership then also agreed on a chilling “vision statement”:
From 2012, UAVs will be routinely used by border agencies, the police and other government bodies. These systems will be automated so that operators task the vehicles and then receive the relevant imagery and intelligence. This product will then be delivered to existing command and control systems.
Without any real thought about whether there was a necessity of building a fleet of drones to spy on people, without anyone in Parliament saying “that sounds like a good idea”, they had decided to squander a huge amount of public money in pursuing this ludicrous, creepy goal.
But there was one problem. The Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) weren’t really on board with the project. Their rules were strict: there was to be absolutely no flying of automated unmanned aerial vehicles over UK airspace without special permission, and especially not over populated areas.
However, the CAA had an exemption, intended to allow people to fly radio-controlled model aeroplanes. According to the exemption, unmanned aircraft are permitted, so long as they weigh less than 20kg. There was no way that even the smallest of the military drones (sorry: UAVs) could possibly get under the cast-iron CAA rules. Even the lightest of the military drones on the market, the RQ7 Shadow, weighs 148kg.
Someone, sadly unnamed in the documents, hit on an idea, doubtless remembering back to GCSE science and the difference between weight and mass. Aircraft – even helicopters and gliders – fly by generating lift from wings. Airships, blimps, aerostats, balloons and zeppelins, however, fly by filling themselves with so much lighter-than-air gas that they weigh nothing, and thus they lift off. They still have mass, but they are technically weightless.
Thus, to beat the CAA regulations, the idea for a robot-controlled Police Zeppelin was born.
It sounds preposterous. But I’m sitting here looking at BAE PowerPoints (downloadable below this article) that make it all seem perfectly sensible, and even routine. I suppose, once you’ve got past the idea that constant, round-the-clock surveillance is a good thing, it’s only a short step to seeing that a Police Zeppelin is a good idea. They don’t need nearly as much fuel as a regular plane. They are quieter. And the robots don’t go on strike, beat newspaper vendors to death or ask for gold-plated pensions.
The Police were now set on buying themselves a robot Zeppelin. A press release was drafted, explaining the “vision” to the public. Work began on the vehicle – codenamed the GA22 – in a hangar in Shropshire. 22 metres long (hence, “GA22”), it could carry a sophisticated set of cameras weighing up to 150kg. The prototype would be radio-controlled, rather than fully autonomous. Technically, it was a “non-rigid airship”, rather than a Zeppelin, but that seems like splitting hairs to me, like insisting a Hoover is a “vacuum-cleaner”. So you’ll forgive my layman’s use of the more evocative term.
Of course, it was only once they’d committed to building a prototype that they decided to work out what to do with it. Over the summer of 2007, and into 2008, a series of emails went back and forth as senior Police officers tried to decide which crimes the Zeppelin would be best used to help combat.
In one particularly chilling note, a Chief Inspector of Special Operations writes “THE POSSIBILITIES ARE LIMITLESS”. Imagine it in a German accent, and 30 seconds later Captain America would be punching the BlackBerry out of this man’s hand.
Great ideas were not forthcoming. “Preventing theft of tractors” suggested one. “Preventing theft from cash machines” offered another, without going into any detail of how such a mission could be better accomplished from an airship at 6,000 feet, rather than say, by a camera on a post. “Monitoring antisocial driving?” asked another. It’s fair to say that none of these were the sort of high-profile crime that would really set pulses racing.
The Highways Agency were asked if the airship could be useful for them – they responded elliptically that they couldn’t participate, as they were already spending their budget on a “Heli-kite” (presumably another gargantuan folly). So, the South Coast Partnership were building a Zeppelin, yet still weren’t quite sure what to do with it.
A lifeline seemed to be offered by Essex Police – who are responsible for policing the Virgin (V) Festival at Hylands Park. In November 2008, an inspector from Essex Police, Paul Marrion, perceived that “the GA22 may have a role to play in such an event”. He offered the the South Coast Partnership the opportunity to run a series of tests of the Zeppelin over the V festival, to test whether the airship was any good for what BAE describe in the GA22 manual as “major event surveillance”.
The manual boasts that the GA22 will carry out “overt continuous airborne surveillance” over such events. That’s to say, it wouldn’t be covert at all. It would be hanging there, over the main stage, creating a permanent photographic record of you copping off with an ugly bird during the Bat for Lashes sound check.
As far as we can tell, this proposal is as far as the testing over music festivals plan went. Presumably, wiser heads prevailed. The V Festival confirmed that it was never approached by the Police to discuss drone tests. Still, it’s indicative of the mindset of the cabal of officers who were planning to deploy the drones. Civil liberties are not something they worry about. Apparently, it’s perfectly acceptable to spy on innocent people enjoying themselves to make sure your airship works. The attitude of “nothing to hide, nothing to fear” leaps at you from every page.
Then the penny dropped. In early 2009, ACC Thomas admitted that while the “initial interest” had been in monitoring the sea coast, he had subsequently realised that “after the terrorist attacks in Mumbai”, there was a clear role for the GA22 – “the policing of major events, be they protests … or the Olympics”.
With that role came the “clear deadline of the 2012 Olympics”, and thus was born the Olympic Zeppelin.
Of course, you can’t plan something as foolish as an Olympic Zeppelin without attracting some scepticism. The first time anyone raised concerns was during an overseas junket, while the South Coast Partnership was still actively looking for partners. They attended a European Police conference, looking for a foreign police force in the market for an Orwellian surveillance platform.
The reception was not positive. None of the European forces thought an Olympic spy Zeppelin was a good idea. The documents don’t say if anyone actually laughed out loud, but the response was unanimous – “the view was it would be unacceptable, too difficult for safety reasons or that it would be unaffordable”.
A German Police commander was particularly strident, telling the delegation Germany had zero interest in the project, as there was no way that drones would come into use “any time soon”. It’s nice to know that assorted Kripos, Gendarmes and Federales have more sense than our own police.
Of course, the boys in blue pushed on in the face of opposition, even though journalists had begun to dig around. A Sunday Times hack got in touch; the press officer tried to convince him to write about more positive aspects of the drone’s role – “border patrols, reconnaissance, surveillance, homeland security” . The reporter put backs up by “repeatedly calling HERTI a drone”, and then, even worse, going down “the ‘big brother is watching you route’” in his piece.
Subsequently, more unfavourable pieces appeared. Many of the documents used in the preparation of this report were originally sourced by the Guardian in early 2010. But still, the South Coast Partnership pushed on, convinced of the virtue of their cause. Subsequent to a Guardian investigation, the Police insisted that while certain “elements of the media and groups with an interest in civil liberties have chosen to focus on the surveillance aspect of these devices, and use terminology such as ‘spy planes’ to describe them, this technology is capable of being employed in a number of other imaginative ways”.
It strikes me that looking at the documentation, that conclusion is incorrect. The GA22 is a surveillance platform. The only reason it’s unfair to call it a spy plane is because it isn’t a plane. It’s meant to hover over areas, taking huge amounts of footage, acting not just as an eye in the sky but also as a visible symbol that the Police are watching you. It was a nasty, illiberal project that should never have got off the drawing board and should never have received a penny of public money.
Folie de grandeur
So how much did it cost? Well, the exact amount spent on this folly is redacted from the records we’ve obtained, but sources put it at least £9 million, and perhaps as much as £30 million. ACC Thomas insists that Kent Police didn’t spend a penny of taxpayers’ money on his airship. This, of course, is not to say he didn’t try: applications for 40 per cent of BAE’s capital costs were submitted to the Home Office.
The fact that he failed to get a grant should be considered separately from the fact that, for example, he co-opted Police helicopters to demonstrate the clarity of photographs taken at various altitudes, lent the Kent Police film unit to BAE, and attended conferences all over the UK and Europe looking for partners to make it work. Presumably, his time also came with a substantial opportunity cost. As taxpayers, I’m sure most of us would rather have seen almost any other use of money other than junkets to promote robotic Zeppelins.
One thing we can say with certainty is that a spin-off from the project, created to lobby for unfettered drone use – “Project ASTRAEA” – has received £30 million worth of taxpayer funding since 2007.
Professor RV Jones’ book Most Secret War, written about his research into Nazi secret weapons, makes the point that secret project names often give away what the project intends to do. While Astraea is supposedly a clumsy acronym (it stands for Autonomous Systems Technology Related Airborne Evaluation & Assessment), as a Classicist I couldn’t help but notice that Astraea is the all-seeing Roman goddess of Justice who dwells in the sky.
Astraea is a publically funded body that lobbies other public bodies to deregulate UK airspace to allow more drones. As recently as this month, they were trumpeting their success in arranging an automated flight test over the Irish sea. However, their lobbying failed over the GA22.
There is one GA22 Airship registered in the UK, reference G-CFKN. It’s the prototype. According to Jane’s Unmanned Aerial Vehicles and Targets, despite repeated attempts, both the CAA and their European opposite numbers have refused airworthiness certificates for the vehicle. It currently lives in a hangar in Birkenhead. The “it weighs less than 20 kilos” ruse did not work.
So although we should all breathe a sigh of relief that the Olympics will not be ruined by constant Zeppelin surveillance, it’s worth reflecting on how close we came to that Orwellian state of affairs.
Nobody (outside of BAE systems, presumably) has ever voted for anything like the kind of surveillance that the South Coast Partnership and their sinister child, Project Astraea, wanted. A group of Police officers went off-piste in a spectacular way, and a simple helicopter procurement turned into a farrago. Millions of pounds of public money has been squandered as a result
ACC Thomas has since left the Police. According to his LinkedIn profile, he is working on a project to “operate a small UAV/s in the region of SE England, North West France, West Flanders in Belgium and Western Holland”. Clearly, the project retains at least one true believer.