UAVs and the geographies of aerial spaces

By Matthew Rech

This week, the Guardian reported that the UK police force are planning to deploy unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV) for the routine monitoring of motorists, protestors, agricultural thieves and fly-tippers (Lewis). Documentation obtained through the freedom of information act suggests that a partnership between BAE Systems and a consortium of government agencies led by Kent Police hope to inaugurate their ‘national drone plan’ with surveillance operations during the London 2012 Olympics.

Routinely in the news, and infamous for their use in reconnaissance and air strikes in Afghanistan and Iraq, the military-style drones will be adapted for use in the UK, with current models being limited by air-space law. The financial cost of ‘revolutionising policing’ in this way, Lewis reports, will be offset by spreading the initial outlay across several government agencies, and by the aircraft ‘undertaking commercial work during spare time’.

Although it is possible for us to frame this story in a number of ways (surveillance, civil liberties and policing, post-human and military technologies), relatively new work in the geographies and geopolitics of aerial spaces might provide a cogent framework with which to assess the implications of airborne covert surveillance.

Writing in Area, Alison Williams ties together an ever-growing literature in aerial geographies/geopolitics, and emphasises the importance of thinking in 3D: of considering the vertical and volumetric aspects of the geographies of states. Although Williams’ article is concerned with the territorial integrity and contingent sovereignty issues in relation to military violations of airspace, an emphasis on the complexities associated with “strategies of security and securitisation increasingly enacted by powerful states” (57) through utilisation of sovereign airspace, remains pertinent to the discussion.

Here, and “as UAVs become the dominant modes of aerial attack” (57) (or in this case, surveillance), the lessons learned from considering the technological, political and moral implications of incursions into sovereign space might usefully be used to consider the future geographies of civilian domestic surveillance.

Read Paul Lewis’ article at Guardian online

Read Williams, A (2009) A crisis in aerial sovereignty? Considering the implications of recent military violations of national airspace. Area 42, 1. 51-59

Read more about the geographies and geopolitics of airspace at the Newcastle University Military Geography website

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About matthewrech

Matthew Rech is a doctoral student in Geography at the University of Newcastle-Upon-Tyne. His current research focuses on military recruitment practices associated with the Royal Air Force. Whilst primarily rooted in the sub-discipline of Critical Geopolitics, the project draws heavily upon key conceptual debates in cultural geography, cultural studies and aesthetic theory. The methodological approach emphasises the more-than-representational qualities of military recruitment, and the particular ways of seeing that make recruitment effective. Matthew attained his BA in Geography in 2007 and his MA in Human Geography Research in 2008, both at the University of Newcastle-Upon-Tyne. Previous dissertations have focused on systems theory and environmental policy, and the social effects of natural disaster.

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