On 7 September the awkwardly named ASTRAEA (Autonomous Systems Technology Related Airborne Evaluation & Assessment) programme held its annual conference at the Royal Aeronautical Society in central London.
The aim of the ASTRAEA programme is “to enable the use of drones (sorry, Unmanned Aircraft Systems) in all classes of airspace without the need for restrictive or specialised conditions of operation”. In other words its an ‘industry-led’ programme to develop systems and technology to allow drones to fly in civilian airspace in the UK. The programme has a £62m budget and is 50% funded by the tax-payer and 50% by AOS, BAE Systems, Cassidian, Cobham, QinetiQ, Rolls-Royce and Thales.
Tim Robinson from the Royal Aeronautical Society has written a thorough report on the conference, cheerily called ‘Drones for Peace’ on the RAES blog. While ASTRAEA likes to portray itself as about ensuring the safety of the public, the real guardian of public safety in respect of airspace, the Civil Aviation authority (CAA) told delegates at the conference ‘that it is for industry and the [drone] community to prove that it will meet standards – “whatever you propose it must be safe” said John Clark from the UK CAA according to Tim Robinson’s report. Given the amount of drones that crash, it would seem that there is a very long way to go before it can be argued that drones are safe to fly in civil airspace.
Another concern of the conference was to highlight the civil use of drones. This is in part about demonstrating that there are ‘exploitable markets’ beyond military use and partly about trying to reassure a sceptical public that drones are ‘a good thing’. Environmental surveys, monitoring protection of wildlife habitats and disaster relief were all highlighted as potential uses of drones. And it is certainly true that drones have the potential to be used for good. But before we get carried away let’s not forget who is funding ASTRAEA: BAE Systems, Cobham, QinetiQ, Rolls-Royce and Thales the biggest military companies in the UK. ASTRAEA is first and foremost a military project.
And that leads to what Tim Robinson called in his post the greatest challenge to drones: the ‘public perception’ issue.
As noted earlier (almost) all military usage so far has skewed public perceptions that they are ‘killer’, ‘spy’ ‘robots’, evoking thoughts of big brother ‘drones’ snooping far above… However, these cultural concerns over ‘machines taking over’ – which stretch all the way back to Luddites, the Industrial revolution, through to Metropolis, Terminator films and Blade Runner – should not be easily dismissed. The public, politicians and media need engaging and reassuring that these drones can be a ‘force for good’. As a study by aviation consultancy Helios notes: “A concerted effort needs to be made to sell the efficiency, environmental and agility benefits that UAS offer over manned aircraft operations.”
This need to “engage the public” has so far led the ASTRAEA to launching a video competition to “improve the public perception” of drones. The contest, won by ACC Media of the University of Central Lancashire can be seen below.
We have previously reported that the UK MoD has stressed the need to develop a communication strategy to win over public opinion about drones. With industry now joining in, it seems we will be bombarded with more propaganda aimed at connecting in our minds the word ‘drone’ and the word ‘peace’. The age of Big Brother has truly arrived, in more ways than one.