SANTIAGO – Latin America has a long and checkered history of technological innovation spreading with the confusion and occasional lawlessness of the Wild West. This is particularly troubling now with the spread of drone technology, as more and more of the unmanned craft are hovering around the region with no regulations to speak of.
In the United States, seven states this year enacted new laws to regulate the use of remote-control planes and mini-helicopter, while 36 other states are debating the issue.
Last October the Mexico City Public Security Secretariat - its police authority - began testing little cuadricopters intended to supervise street demonstrations. In June, O Globo, a Brazilian daily, used the contraptions to do some overhead “reporting” of protests in Sao Paulo. In February the Tigre municipality in Argentina outside Buenos Aires began using the devices to track and film criminal acts and natural disasters. Indeed, the Buenos Aires Metropolitan Police is developing its own drone,the Metrocopter!
These drones are small, weighing as little as two kilograms, and able to fly autonomously up to two kilometers for 30 minutes. They are the baby siblings of those used by the armed forces. In January, Brazil invested some $19 million on just two Israeli drones able to photograph a face from up to nine kilometers above-the-ground. It already had three from the same firm, one of which was the subject of a complaint from Paraguay for presumed covert activity over the disputed Itaipu dam.
In November, the 10 member states of the regional association UNASUR agreed to join together to build a world-class drone, able to fly 13 hours uninterrupted. Brazil is meanwhile building its own drones, as are Chile, Colombia, Peru and Argentina.
Civilian control is a must
Brazil is also building a drone in partnership with Argentina, whose 2014 budget assigns $35 million to just one drone model, in the National UAV Project-Project SARA. There are at least seven more prototypes, one of a high-speed model for testing anti-aircraft defenses.
Clearly there will be some air traffic congestion soon, especially in frontier areas. While the UN's Civil Aviation authority ICAO has said it is working on a framework of inter-state norms governing drones, there is a more basic problem. Santiago Canton of the Robert F. Kennedy Center for Justice and Human Rights was the first to raise the alarm last November, while addressing the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights. Drone proliferation he said was empowering certain military sectors, which instead require "absolute civilian control," given Latin America's history. The absence of regulatory legislation he said, was increasing the "intimidating effect this can have on society, given its use in all kinds of circumstances, including public demonstrations."
The legal vacuum can moreover mean a police-military escalation: Should Latin America leave states to decide for themselves whether or not drones will carry weapon systems such as missiles? Who will be responsible for the effects of shots fired accidentally by these crafts in urban areas or during social conflicts?
In Texas, for example, the law established 19 legitimate uses of drones, but outlawed their use in taking pictures of persons or properties not involved in criminal activity. It's one thing if a Brazilian drone is capturing one of Neymar's goals at the Confederations Cup, but would be quite another if the police use one to spray tear gas at a political demonstration.