Why are mysterious drones flying around Paris landmarks?

Police are investigating sightings of several drones above the French capital over the past two nights. While their appearance is puzzling – and concerning for security reasons – such craft could become a regular sight in Europe's future.

Francois Mori/AP/File
A drone interceptor, top, prepares to catch a smaller drone with a net during a demonstration flight in La Queue-en-Brie, east of Paris, earlier this month.

For the second night in a row, several drones were seen flying over major landmarks in Paris. Police and the public reported at least five sightings overnight Tuesday. The previous night, at least five drones were spotted over the city, including one over the US embassy.

Despite a special police team dedicated to tracking the drones, the operators have still not been found. With the city on high alert following January’s double terrorist attack, an already on-edge public is increasingly concerned by the sightings. What is it about drones that are so fascinating, and of public concern, in France and Europe as a whole?

Why are Parisian media abuzz about drones?

After Monday night’s sightings, drones made a second appearance Tuesday night at central locations like the Invalides military museum and the Eiffel Tower. So tensions – and curiosities – are high.

France has strict airspace laws that date back to 1948 – no aircraft is allowed to fly below 2,000 meters (1.2 miles) over the city, and helicopters must remain at least 200 meters (650 feet) above ground.

Not only did the unknown drone operators break this law, but they broke the specific laws surrounding drone use as well. Drones are prohibited in France from flying over urban areas or at night without authorization. In addition, drones are banned from circulating around sensitive areas such as nuclear facilities.

And this is not the first drone sighting over such areas. In October, up to 20 drones buzzed over nuclear sites in several parts of the country. And in January, just weeks after the terrorist attacks on the Charlie Hebdo offices and at a kosher supermarket, a drone was spotted over Elysée Palace, the official residence of President François Hollande.

Who could be operating these drones?

The operators of the drones from the past two nights, like the previous instances, remain a mystery.

Some initially pointed the finger at Greenpeace over the nuclear plant drone sightings. But the ecological group, which campaigns to reduce France’s dependence on nuclear energy, has denied any involvement. One French media outlet questioned whether an Asian tourism group was responsible for the past two nights’ drone flights, as the company is currently filming Paris for its ad campaign.

In any case, experts say that the operators of the drones on Monday were not likely the same as on Tuesday. Christophe Naudin, a criminologist and specialist in airspace security, says that Monday’s drones were clearly operated by professionals as “a way of provoking the state.” He points out that “The material was well crafted and they were exactly the same drones that were used to fly over the nuclear sites.”

However, he says that Tuesday night’s drones were most likely flown by amateurs, due to their small size and haphazard flight patterns. The operators were probably trying to “take advantage of the atmosphere” created by Monday’s drone sightings, he adds.

Does the French public have reason for concern?

Yes – but over the danger of them falling from the sky, not any terrorist plot.

French officials have stressed the fact that while they are taking the drone sightings very seriously, there is no reason to jump to a conclusion of terrorist activity. Rather, authorities and drone specialists say that a more proximate worry is that a falling drone could injure a member of the public.

While the recreational drones most likely used on Tuesday were small and plastic, the drones on Monday were probably between 5 and 30 kilograms (11 and 44 pounds), which could kill someone if they were to malfunction and crash into a pedestrian.  

Naudin says there are future potential risks to take into account. “Today, drone technology is not yet mature, but it will be very quickly,” says Naudin. “When the technology is discovered and mastered by criminal or terrorist organizations, drones will pose a potential threat.”

And France is already taking preventative measures to that end. It has earmarked 1 million euros to learn how to detect and intercept drones, and a 10-member police force is in charge of investigating this week’s sightings. Anyone held responsible faces a one-year prison sentence and a 75,000 euro ($85,000) fine. 

How does Europe regulate drone use?

Drones are not just military gear. France, Britain, and Germany have increased their commercial use of drones in recent years; drones are used in agriculture, to inspect pipelines, and by scientists to access hard-to-reach areas. And as commercial drone use increases in popularity, world governments are scrambling to update their laws. 

The European Aviation Safety Agency is in the midst of setting Europe-wide safety standards for drone use. For now, citizens must abide by country-specific laws. For example in Britain, drones are not allowed over heavily populated areas at heights of less than 492 feet, or less than 164 feet over individuals, vehicles, or structures. In both Britain and Germany, drones must remain in the “line of sight” of the operators.

For its part, the US Federal Aviation Authority has set up stringent laws on drone use, stoking concern that America may be lagging behind when it comes to the commercial drone market. The FAA bans all unmanned aircraft, including hobby drones, above 400 feet. Like Britain and Germany, they must abide by the “line of sight” rules, which France does not have to follow.

Are there any legitimate uses for flying a drone in an urban area?

Drones take amazing aerial photos, which is one of their draws. They can position cameras where most humans can’t, capturing sites at stunning angles. With the appropriate government pre-authorization, it would be possible to use a drone over an urban area to take photos or scope out a site that is otherwise impossible to view.

However, the fact that Monday and Tuesday’s operators flew their drones without authorization and at night, to boot, points at provocation.

“It seems to me that this was a case of ‘catch me if you can,’” says Thierry Renavand, an instructor at the Drone Center just outside Paris. “Whoever they were, they knew the risks.”

Naudin agrees, going further to say that there is no legitimate reason for the recent drone flights apart from “making the Paris police run across town.”

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