On the horizon: drone spies coming to UK skies

SkyGuardian flight trials over the UK in September 2021

In the last few months Drone Wars and UK Drone Watch have organised protests outside RAF Waddington in Lincolnshire and RAF Lossiemouth in North East Scotland. We were protesting the decision to allow US arms manufacturer General Atomics to conduct experimental flights of their SkyGuardian drone in UK airspace. SkyGuardian is a prototype of the UK’s new armed drone, named Protector, which will replace the UK’s current Reaper armed drone fleet in 2024. As we have shown, the prospect of such large drones regularly flying in UK airspace raises significant safety and accountability concerns.

In response to our actions, the Secretary of State for Defence, Ben Wallace, and the Chief of the Air Staff, Sir Mike Wigston, went out of their way to insist that the presence of SkyGuardian in the UK was innocuous. The Civil Aviation Authority (CAA), which manages British airspace, described SkyGuardian as a “civilian aircraft” and approved it to fly in the UK. However, dig a little deeper and the dangers posed by these flights become clear. Drones, which can provide a constant presence and are relatively economical to fly, are likely to be increasingly used for domestic surveillance by state and private operators. Rising drone surveillance poses threats to human rights, privacy and data protection. Strong regulation of such operations is therefore essential to overcome secrecy and prevent abuses of power.  Read more

CAA opens UK skies to military drones

The Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) has granted permission to US drone company General Atomics to conduct experimental flights of its new SkyGuardian drone in UK airspace. The MoD is buying 16 SkyGuardian drones, but renaming them as ‘Protector’. This is the first time that large military drones will be allowed to fly in the UK outside of segregated airspace and the decision will be seen as a breakthrough by the drone industry, who will see it as the beginning of opening UK skies to a whole host of drones to fly ‘beyond visual line of sight’ (BVLOS).

The news came in an ‘airspace alert’ issued by the CAA following the announcement that temporary airspace rules were to be put in place around the bases where the drone will be based. The terse, one-sentence paragraph in the alert said:

“The CAA has also completed an in-depth review and issued the authorisation to General Atomics operate within the UK.”

The lack of detail reflects the lack of transparency about the process to allow General Atomics to use its largely untried and untested ‘Detect and Avoid’ (DAA) equipment in the flights.

General Atomics has developed its DAA equipment to supposedly replicate an on-board pilot’s ability to ‘see and avoid’ danger. This is the bedrock upon which all air safety measures are built and – as we reported back in 2018 – regulators at the CAA were deeply sceptical as to whether remote technology can replace an on-board pilot in busy airspace such as UK skies. Test flights of the drone in the US last summer, which were due to fly over San Diego, were routed away from city after apparent concerns from US safety regulators.  Read more

Above us only drones? The safety and privacy concerns of the expanding use of drones in the UK’

Our sister organisation, Drone Watch UK, is holding an online event to looking at the costs and risks of the planned opening of UK skies to large drones that fly ‘beyond visual line of sight’. The event will take place on Tuesday 8 June at 7.00pm and you can find more details and register for the free event here.

Over the next few years we are likely to see many more drones, of various types and sizes, flying in the UK. This expansion will see drones being increasingly used for commerce and recreation, but also by the police and military. A national public debate is required before drones take over our skies. The Government must put safety first and protect people’s privacy from drone surveillance.

The expert panel for this event will explore the different ways drones are- and could be- used in the UK, and will discuss the costs, risks and benefits of our airspace being opened up so that drones can fly freely alongside other aircraft.

We need you to be part of the conversation and hope you can join us. Following the panel discussion there will be a Q&A session.

 

Crossing a Line: How the use of drones to secure borders threatens everyone’s rights

Click image to open report.

A new report published today by Drone Wars UK investigates the increasing use of military-style drones by governments to patrol state borders. The study, which examines the use of drones at the borders of the UK, EU, US, Russia, China, Australia and elsewhere, concludes that drones are contributing to the militarisation of everyday borders as part of an integrated set of security technologies – including satellites, sensors and smart walls – which pose significant challenges to personal privacy and civil liberties.

Crossing A Line: The Use of Drones to Control Borders‘ also explores the ethical questions and risks that the use of drones for border and wider public surveillance raises. The United Kingdom is now at the beginning of a journey that would see drones used regularly across the country for surveillance of the general public, and not just above the English Channel.

The report also argues that the highly publicised operation to use Watchkeeper military drones to watch for refugees crossing the Channel has little practical value but serves to help familiarise the public with the use of drones in the domestic context. Despite an intense media campaign by the government trumpeting ‘Operation Devran’ (the use of military aircraft to monitor irregular migration over the Channel) our study shows that the drone had little impact and  played a minimal role in support to the UK Border Force. The drones flew on average only once every other day in their first month of operation, with their use dropping to a total flight time of less than twenty-four hours in the second month.  Due to safety issues, they were only permitted to fly in certain areas covered by temporary airspace restrictions, and could only fly in suitable weather conditions.  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).