Latest update shows UK drones spreading across air, land and sea

We’ve updated our directory of current UK aerial drones and drone development programmes and wanted to highlight that, while drones have been mainly the preserve of the Air Force, they are now increasingly being acquired and used by the British Army and the Royal Navy.  Meanwhile, although the MoD is keen to point to the imminent arrival of its new armed drone, which they have dubbed ‘The Protector’, problems lie ahead.

Protector problems ahead

The replacement for the UK’s Reaper drone – dubbed ‘the Protector’ by the UK but called SkyGuardian by the manufacturer (and everyone else really) –  is supposed to be in service by mid-2024.  While the first aircraft from the production line has been delivered to the RAF it remains in the US for on-going testing and training.  However, two significant problems need to be addressed over the next 18 months before these drones become operational.

Firstly, recruitment and retention of personnel to operate the drones has been an on-going problem as Sir Stephen Lovegrove, then MoD permanent secretary, told the Commons public accounts committee in 2020.  This is likely to be even more so now as crews will be based permanently in Lincoln rather than having the option of being deployed to the sunnier climes of Las Vegas, after the UK shut down its US-based drone operations.

General Atomics promotional graphic visualising Protector flying over London

The RAF partly overcame recruitment issues by drafting in Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) pilots.  As the RAAF  was set to purchase SkyGuardian drones it made sense to the RAAF to send pilots to operate UK armed drones as they would then get training and experience of using these systems before their drones arrived in Australia.  However in April 2022, Australia abruptly cancelled its planned purchase of SkyGuardian drones due to budget problems following the setting up of AUKUS alliance and the plan to build new nuclear submarines.  Given this, it seems likely the RAAF will not be so keen to provide personnel for the UK’s drone programme for much longer. Read more

New trials of AI-controlled drones show push towards ‘killer robots’ as Lords announces special inquiry

General Atomics Avenger controlled by AI in trial

Two recently announced trials of AI-controlled drones dramatically demonstrates the urgent need to develop international controls over the development and use of lethal autonomous weapon systems known as ‘killer robots’.

In early January, the UK Ministry of Defence (MoD) announced that a joint UK-US AI taskforce had undertaken a trial of its ‘AI toolbox’ during an exercise on Salisbury Plain in December 2022.  The trial saw a number of Blue Bear’s Ghost drones controlled by AI which was updated during the drone’s flight. The experiments said the MoD, “demonstrated that UK-US developed algorithms from the AI Toolbox could be deployed onto a swarm of UK UAVs and retrained by the joint AI Taskforce at the ground station and the model updated in flight, a first for the UK.”  The trials were undertaken as part of the on-going US-UK Autonomy and Artificial Intelligence Collaboration (AAIC) Partnership Agreement.  The MoD has refused to give MPs sight of the agreement.

Two weeks later, US drone manufacturer General Atomics announced that it had conducted flight trials on 14 December 2022 where an AI had controlled one of its large Avenger drones from the company’s own flight operations facility in El Mirage, California.

Blue Bear Ghost drones in AI in trail on Salisbury Plain

General Atomics said in its press release that the AI “successfully navigated the live plane while dynamically avoiding threats to accomplish its mission.” Subsequently, AI was used to control both the  drone and a ‘virtual’ drone at the same time in order to “collaboratively chase a target while avoiding threats,” said the company.  In the final trial, the AI “used sensor information to select courses of action based on its understanding of the world state. According to the company, “this demonstrated the AI pilot’s ability to successfully process and act on live real-time information independently of a human operator to make mission-critical decisions at the speed of relevance.”

Drone Wars UK has long warned that despite denials from governments on the development of killer robots, behind the scenes corporations and militaries are pressing ahead with testing, trialling and development of technology to create such systems. As we forecast in our 2018 report ‘Off the Leash’ armed drones are the gateway to the development of lethal autonomous systems.  Whiles these particular trials will not lead directly to the deployment of lethal autonomous systems, byte-by-byte the building blocks are being put in place.

House of Lords Special Committee

Due to continuing developments in this area we were pleased to learn that the House of Lords voted to accept Lord Clement-Jones’ proposal for a year-long inquiry by a special committee to investigate the use of artificial intelligence in weapon systems.  We will monitor the work of the Committee throughout the year but for now here is the accepted proposal in full:  Read more

Why we oppose today’s planned UK space launch

Protestors gathered at Newquay ‘Spaceport’ in October 2022 to oppose UK space launch

Tonight’s planned space launch from Newquay ‘spaceport’ is the latest step in a new era of expansion into space by the military with the UK wholeheartedly joining a space arms race which will inevitably lead to greater risk of instability and conflict.

Space is rapidly becoming a key domain for military operations as modern wars rely heavily on space-based assets for command and control,  surveillance,  intelligence gathering, missile warning and supporting forces deployed overseas. Satellites also enable communications links for military and security forces, including communications needed to remotely fly armed drones.

Over the past two years we have seen the setting up of UK Space Command, the publication of a Defence Space Strategy outlining how the MoD will “protect the UK’s national interests in space” and the announcement of a portfolio of new military programmes to develop space assets and infrastructure.   MoD ministers have openly stated that they now determine space to be a war fighting domain.

As well as today’s planned launch – which will see at least two pairs of military satellites placed in space – ground has been broken on a new spaceport in the Shetland Isles.

Protestors at Newquay Airport, October 2022. Credit: Phil Green/Peter Burt

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Challenging the environmental impact of the UK’s military expansion into space

In February, Shetland Islands Council granted planning permission for the proposed SaxaVord Spaceport, located on the Lamba Ness Peninsula in the northeast of the island of Unst in the Shetland Islands.  Other Scottish spaceports have also been proposed for Sutherland in the Highlands and at a site in the Western Isles.

The proposed developments on Unst are relatively modest in terms of their footprint on the ground, comprising of a gatehouse, three launch pads, a satellite tracking station, two hangar buildings, an administration building, pyrotechnic store and hazardous materials store – and a wildlife hide – on a site of about 198 acres (80 hectares).  But this masks a much larger environmental impact resulting from the space launch activities which are planned at the site.

Lamba Ness peninsula on Unst, before work on Spaceport began.

To carry out spaceflight activity in the UK spaceport and launch operators must be licensed by the UK Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) and Shetland Space Centre Limited has applied for such a licence to operate a vertical spaceport from Unst.

Construction work has begun even though consultation on environmental impact is still ongoing.

As part of their licence application, spaceport and launch operators are required to submit an Assessment of Environmental Effects (AEE). The purpose of the AEE is to ensure applicants have adequately considered any potential environmental effects of their intended activities and, if necessary have taken steps to avoid, mitigate or offset the risks and their potential effects. The AEE for the Saxavord Spaceport has been prepared and submitted on behalf of the operators by ITPEnergised (an international consultancy), whose job is to present the development in the best possible light – highlighting the benefits and playing down the impacts in order to ensure that a license is issued for the spaceport. It should be noted that even as the public consultation on the Assessment of Environmental Effects was ongoing, work had begun on construction of the spaceport.  Read more

Fine words, Few assurances: Assessing new MoD policy on the military use of Artificial Intelligence

Drone Wars UK is today publishing a short paper analysing the UK’s approach to the ethical issues raised by the use of artificial intelligence (AI) for military purposes in two recently policy documents.  The first part of the paper reviews and critiques the Ministry of Defence’s (MoD’s) Defence Artificial Intelligence Strategy published in June 2022, while the second part considers the UK’s commitment to ‘responsible’ military artificial intelligence capabilities, presented in the document ‘Ambitious, Safe, Responsible‘  published alongside the strategy document.

What was once the realm of science fiction, the technology needed to build autonomous weapon systems is currently under development by in a number of nations, including the United Kingdom.  Due to recent advances in unmanned aircraft technology, it is likely that the first autonomous weapons will be a drone-based system.

Drone Wars UK believes that the development and deployment of AI-enabled autonomous weapons would give rise to a number of grave risks, primarily the loss of human values on the battlefield.  Giving machines the ability to take life crosses a key ethical and legal Rubicon.  Lethal autonomous drones would simply lack human judgment and other qualities that are necessary to make complex ethical choices on a dynamic battlefield, to distinguish adequately between soldiers and civilians, and to evaluate the proportionality of an attack.

In the short term it is likely that the military applications of autonomous technology will be in low risk areas, such logistics and the supply chain, where, proponents argue, there are cost advantages and minimal implications for combat situations.  These systems are likely to be closely supervised by human operators.  In the longer term, as technology advances and AI becomes more sophisticated, autonomous technology is increasingly likely to become weaponised and the degree of human supervision can be expected to drop.

The real issue perhaps is not the development of autonomy itself but the way in which this milestone in technological development is controlled and used by humans.  Autonomy raises a wide range of ethical, legal, moral and political issues relating to human judgement, intentions, and responsibilities.   These questions remain largely unresolved and there should therefore be deep disquiet about the rapid advance towards developing autonomous weapons systems.  Read more

Task Force 99: New US drone unit begins work in the Middle East

Task Force 99 at Al Udeid Air Base, Qatar. (Credit USAF)

A new unit tasked with field-testing aerial uncrewed systems and AI technologies has begun work in the middle east according to the head of US Air Force Central Command (AFCENT), Major General Alexus Grynkewich.  “It’s a small group of super-empowered airmen that I’m going to provide resources to so they can rapidly innovate and experiment in our literal sandbox that we have in the Middle East” the General told the US Air, Space and Cyber conference in September. It is unclear how the description of the Middle East as “our literal sandbox” was received by allies attending the conference.

Some of Task Force 99’s work will be focused on countering the threat of small drones from state and non-state actors, but it will also ‘experiment with off-the-shelf technologies’ in the ‘hope of harnessing new technologies in innovative ways’ according to reports in defence press.

The new Air Force unit is similar to the US Navy’s Task Force 59, which is based in Bahrain and has been conducting experiments with maritime drones for the past 12 months, (although the US has been using maritime drones in the region for a good deal longer). Tension flared in September 2022 between the US and Iran when two of Task Force 59’s surface drones were seized by an Iranian ship in the Red Sea.  After the US demanded that the drones be returned, the Iranian ship released them into the water the following morning.

The US Air Force’s Task Force 99 will mainly be based at Al Udeid Air Base in Qatar but will also have a small ‘satellite innovation cell’ at Ali Al Salem Air Base in Kuwait, from where US and British Reaper drones operate. The Al Udeid unit will ‘experiment with variable payloads on small drones’ according to a report in ‘Air and Space Forces’ magazine.    Read more