French Authorities Pursue Drones Spotted Flying Over Paris

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Small drones have been seen flying illegally above high-security landmarks in Paris recently. Officials say they don't pose much risk, but the city is still on edge after the Charlie Hebdo attack.

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Transcript

LINDA WERTHEIMER, BYLINE: For two nights this week, small recreational drones have flown over the French capital. So far, no indication that any of this is malicious or even dangerous, but authorities are playing close attention. Paris is still on high terror alert and has been since January. NPR's Eleanor Beardsley joins us from Paris. Good morning, Eleanor.

ELEANOR BEARDSLEY, BYLINE: Good morning, Linda.

WERTHEIMER: Now, it sounds as though the skies of Paris are filled with strange, little flying objects. Tell us what's happening.

BEARDSLEY: That's right, Linda. For two mornings this week, Parisians woke up to find that drones have been flying over their city. This is the first time that drones have come close to sensitive sites. They buzzed the Eiffel Tower, and they also flew over the presidential palace and the American embassy. So people are kind of jittery. But, Linda, this is not the first time that drones have flown over sensitive sites. Last fall, five nuclear facilities in France had drones fly over them. And don't forget that in the U.S., in January, a drone crashed onto the White House lawn.

WERTHEIMER: Now, when we think of drones, obviously, images of unmanned aircraft, like predator drones, killing suspected terrorists in Yemen, all of that comes to mind. Nothing like that so far in Paris?

BEARDSLEY: No, not all. In fact, Linda, I discovered yesterday I went to a drone shop, and there are many in Paris because it's becoming a big hobby. You walk in, and these drones are, like, little robots with arms and propellers. They're even called quadricopters. And it's a huge hobby. There are hundreds of thousands of these now sold in France and across Europe. And I talked to people who have bought them. What happens is you put a camera on them, and it streams back the footage. You wear the glasses, so it's like you're in the drone flying. And the people told me, we get together on the weekends. We have races. And it's like you're flying over these sites. So it's a big game. And a lot of these people in the store yesterday said they think the ones flying the drones at night over the city, which is completely illegal, they're just testing the limits - pranksters.

WERTHEIMER: Now, Paris has seen a lot in the last month with terrorist attacks in Paris. Surely, people must be on edge. This must be making people nervous.

BEARDSLEY: Exactly. In that store, people didn't seem to be nervous. But other people I talked to, a woman said, you know, we just had these attacks on the Charlie Hebdo satirical magazine and the Kosher market. Seventeen people were killed. She said, I'm scared. This might be terrorists. This is somebody trying to destabilize us. And officials are obviously jittery. They're trying to downplay the possibility for, you know, something dangerous to happen.

But yesterday, police in Paris arrested three journalists from Al Jazeera television who were flying and filming a drone. There is absolutely no evidence of any connection with the nocturnal flights. But that just shows the extent. You know, people are flouting the law. The law says you cannot fly over public places without training or authorization. And you can never fly at night. They're just going out there and doing it anyway.

You know, I spoke with a criminologist yesterday. He said, right now, there is no way to stop these drones or intercept their pilots, who can sometimes be a mile away from the drone that they're flying. He said criminologists knew this was the next frontier. Linda, there are a lot of good uses for drones. The German Post has already delivered medicines to a person living on an island with a drone. But of course, there's many nefarious uses. Mexican drug cartels have already tried using them to transport drugs. So this criminologist told me that governments are working furiously to find a way to counter them. But it's not going to come overnight.

WERTHEIMER: NPR's Eleanor Beardsley, she joined us from Paris. Eleanor, thank you.

BEARDSLEY: Thank you, Linda. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.