July 19, 2018

Something Strange Happened Lately in the Skies of France

Nicole Prévost Logan

Nicole Prévost Logan

Something strange happened lately in the skies of France:  drones were spotted over several nuclear plants, including one dangerously close to Paris in Nogent sur Seine. A few days later more drones flew over nuclear complexes.  A wave of anxiety gripped the public opinion.  Who was manipulating those machines?  Was the country under threat?

Greenpeace was immediately suspected of being the one to operate the unmanned contraptions.   As a pro-environmental watchdog this international association has a history of peaceful action against nuclear power.  In 2012 a paraglider had landed on a nuclear installation, to prove that the installation was not well protected.  In July 2013, 29 activists broke into Tricastin nuclear plant, in southern France.   Yannick Rousselet, head of the anti-nuclear Greenpeace campaign, appearing on television, vehemently denied any involvement this time.

If Greenpeace had nothing to do with it.  the question remained, who did?  A few days later , three individuals suspected of operating the drones, were arrested.  So, for now, the fear is defused. But it was a wake up call of a potential danger.

The most advanced drone technologies are found in Israel and the US..  To obtain the most accurate information I interviewed a French engineer who used to work with a German company manufacturing drones .  He told me that ten years ago all of them were built for military use, mostly for reconnaissance and surveillance.  They included the HALE (High Altitude Long Endurance); the MALE (Medium Altitude Long Endurance); tactical drones; portable drones for use in ground combat.  Israeli  Watchkeeper with sensors and camera can fire missiles and bombs from sometimes thousands of miles away.   To-day drones have become a necessity in wars taking place in huge territories such as Mali.

France is at the cutting-edge of research but lacks funds to develop its ideas.   As an example, Dassault designed the NEURON and produced one model whereas the American PREDATOR, built in 2010, has already flown one million hours.

European countries are catching up with drone technology. On November 5, François Hollande and David Cameron attended the signing of an agreement between Dassault Aviation and BAE Systems (British Aerospace and Marconi electronics Systems) for a new generation of drones.  Germany and Italy will be part of the project in the future.

To-day civilian drones exist in all sizes and degrees of complexity. Drones, called “insects” are so small that they can be held in the palm of the hand.  The  Chinese DJI Fantom , flies like an helicopter with quadrotors,  carries a remote camera and is very popular with the general public. Drones  have become invaluable at times of natural disasters, to test the strength of bridges, in mapping, archaeology and multiple other uses.

But they may be dangerous like causing the crash of commercial airplanes by getting into the reactors.  When a drone fell less than six feet from Angela Merkel, during her political campaign in September 2013 people realized that a drone was anything but a toy.

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