Military drone crash data undermines MoD case to fly Protector drones in UK

Drone Wars is today publishing a new report reviewing large military drone crashes over the past decade.  Accidents Will Happen details over 250 crashes of large Predator-sized (NATO Class II and III) unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) across the globe operated by a number of different countries, primarily the United States. The data is being released as UK airspace regulators are coming under pressure from the Ministry of Defence (MoD) and industry lobbyists to open British airspace to such drones.

Although there has been public and parliamentary discussion about the impact on public safety and security of the increasing use of small drones (particularly since the incursions at Gatwick airport in late 2018), there has so far been little media or political discussion about the implications of opening up UK airspace to large military drones. However airspace regulators have serious concerns about the danger of operating unmanned systems alongside piloted aircraft.  This new data will add weight to the concerns of the air traffic community.

See our separate blog post on the data here

Protector drone?

The MoD is purchasing the latest variant of the Predator drone – called SkyGuardian by the manufacturer General Atomics but renamed as ‘Protector’ by the MoD – and wants it to be able to fly within the UK for training purposes as well as for what it calls ‘homeland defence’ tasks. It should perhaps be noted that the RAF has used Reaper drones for well over a decade without needing to train with them in the UK.  Regulators have pointed out that while the new version of Predator is being built to standards to allow it to be ‘certified’for flying, they still have to be convinced that it can fly safely. In particular, as there is no on-board pilot the aircraft cannot fulfil what is considered the bedrock of air safety: a pilot being able to ‘see and avoid’ other aircraft. General Atomics is developing an electronic ‘Detect and Avoid’ system which it argues will be able to fulfil this safety function but this technology is largely untried and untested.  The CAA had to put in place extensive measures to keep aircraft away from the vicinity of the drone when it was flown into UK as a off-experiment in July 2018.

The new version of the Predator drone has been re-named ‘Protector’ by the MoD

Drone Wars has previously published internal discussions between the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) and the MoD and General Atomics – obtained through a Freedom of Information request – showing regulators had “a lack of confidence” in the technical solutions proposed. In January this year, General Atomics brought in big guns BAE Systems to lobby regulators to allow Protector drones to fly in the UK.

Our Drone Crash Dataset show that large military drones have crashed, on average, twice per month over the past decade. The majority, 64%, took place while the drone was in mid-flight, while 28% occurred at either take-off or landing. The causes of approximately half of the crashes in the dataset are given and include mechanical failure (such as tails shearing off or propellers snapping), communications problems (known as ‘lost link’), engine failure (often due to oil or coolant loss), weather problems (including lighting strikes) and pilot error.

Public Debate Needed

While plans are being developed behind closed doors to open UK airspace to large drones, there needs to be a proper public debate about the safety and civil liberties implications of this development.  The rise in the use of military drones as well as the increasing use of small drones for recreational purposes had given some the impression that drone use is normalising. However, the number of crashes of large drones shows that the technology is far from mature.  What should give drone advocates, airspace regulators and the government pause for thought is the sheer variety of causes of these crashes.  There is no one simple reason that can be addressed with a new technological fix.

Flying large aircraft remotely is extremely complex.  And it is that sheer complexity, as a recent official investigation into the crashes of British Watchkeeper drones found, that is a factor in the crashes. As an example, it reports that while the Flight Reference Cards for the AgustaWestland AW159 Wildcat helicopter runs to 80 pages, for Watchkeeper they run to 265 pages. “It would be reasonable to conclude,” the report’s author summarises, “that the complexity of flying Watchkeeper is disproportionate and adds unnecessary risk to the conduct of safe flight.”

In our report, ‘Accidents Will Happen‘, Drone Wars makes the following recommendations:

  • The Civil Aviation Authority (CAA,) rather than the Military Aviation Authority (MAA), must have the final say on allowing Protector to fly in UK airspace.
  • There should be a full and open review of whether the need to train with Protector in the UK justifies the additional risk to the public, in particular, the local population in and around RAF Waddington near Lincoln, where Protector will be based.
  • While the MoD recognises that there is disquiet among the public and the air traffic management community about plans to fly Protector in the UK, its suggestion of a ‘communications strategy’ to allay fears must be balanced and recognise and reflect the risks associated with the use of these systems in order to give the public the full picture.
  • Although the MoD is highlighting that the use of Protector for ‘homeland defence’ could include “search and rescue” and “flood prevention”, it is less keen to talk about other possible uses. Debate about scope of the use of military UAVs within the UK for security purposes deserves proper thought and debate. An inquiry by the Joint Committee on Human Rights would seem to be an appropriate forum to begin such a discussion.

Pressure from lobbyists to open up our skies to these large drones is mounting. However, the technology is far from mature and, as the data demonstrates, accidents occur frequently. The rise in the use of military unmanned systems is dangerous for a whole host of reasons and the push to introduce them into UK airspace not only normalises their use but may well also put the safety of the British public at risk.

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