ROME – As their deployment to Afghanistan comes to an end, unarmed Italian Reaper UAVs are to be used to monitor soccer games and demonstrations in Italy's cities, following a deal struck between the Italian Air Force and the country's police forces.
The agreement, which could see the General Atomics UAVs flying over the streets of Rome, Milan and Turin, is the first of its kind in Europe and is the fruit of drone-friendly laws passed in Italy.
"We are the only European nation flying UAVs at home," said Maj. Paolo Castelli, the deputy commander of the Italian Air Force's 28th Squadron, which operates UAVs from Amendola air base in southern Italy.
"We wanted to do this and we were therefore the first to tackle the issue," he said.
The 28th Squadron operates six upgraded Predator As, known as A+, and six Reapers — all unarmed, despite Italian efforts to win US approval to arm them.
The machines have been flown in the Balkans, Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya and over the Mediterranean where they have been used to spot migrant vessels sailing from Italy from Africa.
A Predator A+ is also flying anti-piracy missions from Djibouti in Africa as part of a European Union mission.
As Italy's commitment in Afghanistan winds down, Reapers deployed there are due to return home, while two Predator A+s have been dispatched to Kuwait to assist the effort against Islamic State fighters.
Now, the UAVs could also be called on to patrol closer to home.
"We discussed the possibility of finding synergies with the Italian police, and realized it could be beneficial for both," said Col. Michele Oballa, head of the 32nd Wing, which runs Amendola.
"The mission would be similar to some types of operations that we have done in Afghanistan, while for the police, the Predators offer persistence and concealment, something they cannot always get in certain specific contexts."
Police officials have said the Predators will be cheaper to operate than manned helicopters that keep tabs on large public gatherings.
Italian law already allows UAV flights in civil airspace in spaces and times when coordinated with Italy's civil aviation authority. Predators overflew world leaders gathering in Italy for the G8 in 2009.
Under Italian law, pockets of airspace are closed to other traffic as drones fly through them. That means the entire flight path of a UAV flying from one airport to another does not need to be closed off — merely the part along which the UAV is flying.
Once the UAV reaches a town, it could occupy a predetermined altitude and circular area of flight, for example between 17,000 and 19,000 feet in a 5-by-5 mile area, officials said.
"In Rome, for example, where the two airports are outside the center, if we needed to fly over the Vatican, or the Olympic Stadium, there would be minimal, if any, need to limit local air traffic," Castelli said.
"The police would give us their request, and we would talk to the civil aviation authorities to see if there were any constraints," he said.
Oballa said that if the UAVs were called on to fly over large cities such as Rome, then an extra request would be required from the local representative of the Italian interior minister.
"Aircraft are allowed to fly over cities because it has been shown they have a one in a billion chance of crashing," he said. "When UAVs can prove that, which will be in several years, then we will be able to fly everywhere without permits."
The new deal with the police and Italy's Carabinieri paramilitary police gives the use of UAVs for law enforcement a formal status, although the Air Force has already flown Predators on an ad hoc basis for police, with sources saying mafia suspects have been tracked by the UAVs in Sicily.
"This all started in 2004 when we decided we wanted to fly UAVs in Italy," Oballa said. "We have built up a level of confidence with Italy's civil aviation authority."
Today, the Reapers are equipped with electro-optical sensors and the Lynx synthetic aperture radar, while the Predator A+s offer just EO.