All eyes on Brazil’s drone boom


French national soccer team manager Didier Deschamps may have complained about privacy for “Les Bleus” after spotting a drone over a training session held north of São Paulo, but Brazil has few laws impinging on civilian use of drones, or ‘unmanned aerial vehicles’ (UAVs). Opposite regulations in the United States, where the FAA forbids commercial UAV use until at least 2015, the lack of restriction from Brazilian regulatory bodies has allowed for a drone boom in that country, where São Paulo alone houses a whopping eight UAV manufacturers.

Brazilian regulations are UAV-user friendly, but that does not mean this alleged “spying” incident was legal, said Major Luiz Felipe of the Brazilian Air Force. “There are some procedures to be followed in order to fly a civilian UAV and, once neglected, [operators] are subject to the legal prosecution as attempt on the safety of air navigation,” Felipe wrote in an email to Runway Girl Network.

The alleged drone sighting took place in Ribeirão Preto, just north of São Paulo, where eight of the country’s 12 manufacturers keep headquarters. Of those eight, Avibras Industria Aerospacial and Embraer are part of a joint venture called Harpia Systems, formed between Brazil’s Air Force and the law enforcement and military operations company Avibras.

Harpia is a line of unmanned aircraft systems used for patrol and surveillance, a project in which Elbit Systems’ regional AEL Systems holds stake. Despite the Air Force’s involvement in drone monitoring, however, they could not provide more information on the French team’s alleged drone sighting. According to Felipe, Brazilian Air Force UAVs would not have been present as they are only used during matches at select stadiums deemed near “sensitive areas” to capture real-time images for command and control centers with monitoring duties.

Yet the Brazilian Air Force is applying its vast patrol and surveillance expertise to intercept and prevent homeland security problems at the World Cup at large with the use of two $12 million drones from Elbit Systems. Specifically, the Air Force is using the drones to survey national skies during the games in addition to patrolling borders and remote areas in the Amazon where smuggling routinely occurs. While those UAVs were not purchased specifically for World Cup deployment, said Felipe, they are part of what he describes as “a huge air defense system” protecting all airspace during the 2014 FIFA World Cup.

FIFA is not pleased with such a privacy intrusion during the World Cup, and is investigating the incident but, according to spokesperson David Noemi, the organization has made no further discoveries. Noemi even cast the veracity of the sighting into doubt, saying, “We have not received any information to confirm that the said incident happened.”

Meanwhile, Brazil’s futbol (football) world is bound to see more unmanned vehicles, but they certainly won’t know it. The Air Force’s AWAC fleet, used to keep track of sports events via radar installed over the fuselage, is comprised of huge aircraft, Embraer 145s and Echo 99s. Anyone noticing large planes above practice fields won’t be able to tell if they’re looking at UAVs with empty cockpits — or just normal aircraft.

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