UK Campaign to Stop Killer Robots writes to Defence Secretary on the UK’s approach to LAWS

Guardian report of Gen Sir Nick Carter’s comments on UK’s increasing use of autonomous and remotely controlled machines.

As members of the UK Campaign to Stop Killer Robots, Drone Wars and a number of other UK civil society groups have written to Secretary of State Ben Wallace on the UK’s position on the development of Lethal Autonomous Weapon Systems partly in response to recent comments by the Chief of the Defence Staff.

Dear Secretary of State,

We are writing on behalf of the UK Campaign to Stop Killer Robots, in advance of the next meeting of the Group of Governmental Experts (GGE) on ‘Lethal Autonomous Weapons Systems’ (LAWS) at the Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons (CCW), as well as the CCW’s meeting of High Contracting Parties. We welcome the UK government’s recognition in the CCW that discussing human control is central to successful international work to address increasing ‘autonomy’ in weapons systems, and that this is an area in which meaningful progress can be made.[1]  Read more

How pandemic responses are helping to sanitise the public image of drones

Still from DraganFly video on using drones to detect Covid

On May 29 2020 , an MQ-9 Reaper drone, the “true hunter-killer” of drones, flies over American citizens on US soil. The George Floyd Protests in the US have only just begun after Minneapolis police officer, Derek Chauvin killed Floyd 4 days before. As footage of the Reaper circulates on social media, more video of drones arrives: “Pandemic drones.” Canadian drone manufacturer Draganfly announces that its drones can use infrared vision to detect social distancing, heart rate, body temperature, and even coughing. Cities in the US and Canada are being encouraged to purchase and use these drones in public spaces as a health measure.”. In the Reaper scene, the drone is targeting the public as a safety threat. In the Draganfly scene, the drone is protecting the public from a health threat. These seemingly contradictory scenes have been popping up everywhere, especially in the US and UK, who are both poorly managing the pandemic. How do these two scenes work together? What public image of drones are they producing? And where is drone warfare? Read more

Announcing a new initiative:  UK Drone Watch

Since 2010, Drone Wars UK has been shining a spotlight on the military’s use of drones and the impact on peace and security around the globe. Now, both in the US and in Europe, large military-grade drones which fly ‘beyond visual line of sight’ (BVLOS) are moving from the battlefield to the domestic front.

Here in the UK, the government is rapidly pushing ahead with plans to enable large unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) to fly freely within UK airspace as part of its Airspace Modernisation Strategy.  These plans are keenly supported by the growing drone industry and the Ministry of Defence (MoD) who are taking a significant lead in this area with plans, for example, to fly the latest version of the Predator drone – which the MoD is calling ‘Protector’  – in UK airspace.  Ministers argue that the planned changes present exciting opportunities for business to create high-tech jobs and to boost the economy across the UK.  While these plans may well be a boon for some, it is vital that the negative aspects of ‘beyond visual line of sight’ (BVLOS) drone use within the UK are examined, and if such flights are to go ahead, privacy and safety protections are factored in from the start.

Elbit Systems Hermes 900 during UK trial flight for Coastguard and National Police Air Service in September 2020

It should be noted that there are no plans for primary legislation to implement these changes which would given an opportunity to subject these changes to democratic scrutiny via parliamentary debate. Instead a quango, the Airspace Change Organising Group (ACOG), has been established by the Department for Transport (DfT) and Civil Aviation Authority (CAA), to coordinate and implement government plans in this area.  We believe it is vital that this democratic deficit is publicised and challenged and the public have their say in controlling drones in UK skies.

Over the past few months, we have seen military drones deployed at the UK border to deter refugees crossing the channel, the RAF advancing plans to fly the ‘Protector’ drone in the UK,  UK coastguard and police assessing large Israeli drones for operations and other drone test programmes advanced under the COVID crisis.

Alongside our continuing focus on the military use of drones, we will now have a related programme examining the opening of UK skies to large BVLOS drones and in particular their use for security and surveillance purposes within the UK.

  • For more information see our dedicated webpage: Drone Watch UK
  • Read our first post of this initiative: Benchmarking Police Use of Drones
  • Join us soon for an online discussion on developing campaigning around opening of UK skies to BVLOS drones  (details tbc).                                      

Benchmarking police use of drones in the UK

As part of our work looking at the opening of UK skies to large ‘beyond visual line of sight’ drones for surveillance and security purposes, we undertook a comprehensive Freedom of Information (FoI) survey of police use of drones in order to benchmark current police use.

In particular we wanted to investigate:

  • if the use of drones by the police had already increased since 2017 (when HM Inspector of Constabulary reported that 28 of the 43 forces in England and Wales had either purchased a drone or had ready access to one;
  • in which way police forces were using drones;
  • if police forces had taken advantage of the special permission granted to them by the Civil Airspace Authority (CAA) to use drones during the COVID-19 outbreak.

While current police use of drones is restricted to small, quad-copter type systems, police are trialling the use of much larger, military-grade drones that can stay airborne for much greater periods of time. Read more

Watch: ‘Drone Warfare: Today, Tomorrow, Forever?’

Here’s a recording of the webinar to mark our 10th anniversary ‘Drone Warfare: Today, Tomorrow, Forever?’

The event featured:

  • Aditi Gupta, Coordinator for the All-Party Parliamentary Group
  • Chris Cole, Director of Drone Wars UK
  • Ella Knight, campaigner at Amnesty International
  • Rachel Stohl, Vice President at the Stimson Center
  • Elke Schwarz, Lecturer in Political Theory at Queen Mary’s, University of London

New Report: Crowded Sky, Contested Sea: Drones over the South and East China Seas

Click to open report

Amid naval patrols, live military drills, island building, trade wars and diplomatic breakdown, drones are making an increasing impact on the security situation in the South China Sea and the relationship between China and the US.  Smaller nations in the region are also acquiring further reaching surveillance UAVs, while a number of states are looking to bring armed drones in to service over the next few years.

A new report from Drone Wars UK, Contested Sea, Crowded Sky, looks at the steady acquisition of drones by smaller states in South East Asia and their deployments in the South and East China Seas that are contributing to destabilisation in the region and deteriorating relations between China and the US.

Just last week, Congress received notification from The Whitehouse of a proposed sale of a maritime version of the Reaper drone to Taiwan, while US drone crews have been recently training for Reaper operations in the pacific region (“With an Eye on China, Reaper Drones Train for Maritime War”) as part of the ‘pivot away from the Middle East’.  Both incidents have greatly angered China.  Caught in a super-power stand-off, smaller states in the region also have security concerns regarding contested island chains, natural resources under the sea bed and access to fishing waters. China claims many of the small island chains but most are also claimed by several smaller states. The tensions over ownership and resources are contributing to military build-up in the South and East China seas. As well as upgrading jets and naval vessels, states are investing in longer range, more persistent unmanned aerial systems (UAS) to enhance security. Read more