16 February 2013
As controversial weapons in the war on terror, they are regularly heard in the skies over countries such as Afghanistan and Somalia.
But drones are also a feature of the daily lives of a tiny community far removed from the world’s most notorious troublespots.
For the noise of the unmanned aircraft fills the air over Aberporth, a once-bustling fishing port nestling beneath cliffs in West Wales.
The seaside town is the unlikely home to what is billed as Britain’s ‘drone centre of excellence’.
The local airport, a former Second World War RAF station which is now privately owned, is the only place in the UK where military and civilian unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) can be tested.
It is surrounded by 500 square miles of restricted airspace, meaning the pilotless drones – used to carry out surveillance and deliver missile attacks without the need to put servicemen’s lives in danger – can be flown without the risk of colliding with other aircraft.
However, the decision to turn West Wales Airport into the National
Aeronautical Centre and spend £21million of taxpayers’ money on a neighbouring
technology park has shattered the peace of Aberporth in more ways than one.
Some critics have ethical concerns about using drones as remote battlefield weapons, saying that, particularly when used by US forces, they have been responsible for civilian deaths.
Others say money has been wasted on a project which has yet to deliver the jobs
that were promised. The Welsh Government said Parc Aberporth would create 1,000
jobs but the half-deserted site employs fewer than 40 people, while up to 12
more work at the airport.
Protesters also complain about noise, privacy and safety – two test drones have crashed.
The state-of-the-art Watchkeeper UAV, which cost £889million, is being put through its paces by the Royal Artillery. Fifty-four of the drones, which resemble giant grey cigars with wings, are destined for surveillance work in Afghanistan.
The craft send images back to a control centre using cameras so sensitive
they are capable of reading a playing card from 1,000ft.
Commanders say they allow Taliban operations to be spotted, saving the lives of frontline troops.
The Ministry of Defence says Watchkeeper will not be armed, unlike the Reaper drones operated by the RAF above Helmand, but it is capable of pinpointing enemy targets for missile strikes.
Watchkeepers take off and land at Aberporth up to 25 times a day. The drones described by locals as ‘flying lawnmowers’ are audible even after they disappear from view.
Eirian James, an opera singer who lives near the end of the runway, said: ‘The noise of the drones is highly disturbing, sinister. It makes me think of those poor people who hear the whirring and they don’t know if it’s the last sound they hear before being blown to bits.’
Des Davies, 68, a retired stockbroker, said: ‘They wanted a Silicon Valley-style hub for the UAV industry. They got a white elephant. It has been a scandalous waste of money. It would have been better if they’d given 40 people half a million each to start a local business.’
Mark Williams, Liberal Democrat MP for Ceredigion, said: ‘There was always concern about the ethical dimension, the potential intrusion of surveillance, safety and the noise nuisance. But the community gave people the benefit of the doubt.
‘Many promises were made and these have been in the pipeline for a very long
time. Despite a lot of public money being spent, there is not much evidence of
economic development on the ground.’