Public consultation on allowing armed drones to fly from RAF Waddington opened – have your say!

Above us only….drones?

The Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) has formally opened a public consultation on the Ministry of Defence (MoD) proposal to change airspace regulations around RAF Waddington to allow armed Protector drones to operate from the base from 2023. In short, these changes will put in place  a ‘danger area’ around Waddington to allow the drones to take-off and land.

Currently the UK’s fleet of armed Reaper drones are not permitted to fly within the UK as they were not built to appropriate standards.  However the MoD argues that its new drone – called SkyGuardian by the manufacturer but labelled ‘Protector’ by the MoD – has been built to stricter construction standards that should allow it to be certified to fly within UK airspace. Separate from the construction issue is the very significant question as to whether large drones (military or otherwise) can fly safely in airspace alongside other aircraft. Drone advocates argue this can be done though using electronic ‘Detect and Avoid’ (DAA) equipment but this is as yet largely untried and untested.

Map of potentially affected area from CAA website

While this consultation is therefore limited in that it is focuses only on specific airspace changes around Waddington rather than wider questions about the safety of opening UK airspace to large drones, we would urge those concerned about these developments to respond via the dedicated webpage.  All members of the public are invited to respond and it should only take a few minutes.  The consultation is open until 30 November.  Read more

MoD to hold ‘duel of drones’ to choose new armed unmanned system

Artist conception of Loyal Wingman drones

The Ministry of Defence (MoD) will launch a series of competitions this autumn to progress the selection of an armed loyal wingman drone culminating in a duel between the two finalist – “an operational fly-off” as Sir Mike Wigston, Chief of Air Staff described it.  The initiative comes after the abrupt cancellation of Project Mosquito (to develop a loyal wingman drone technology demonstrator for the RAF)  earlier this summer.  The RAF’s Rapid Capabilities Office (RCO) will run the new process, open to both UK and international industry , and aimed at acquiring a “Mosquito type autonomous combat vehicle” after the Mosquito project itself was cancelled as it was not  thought able to achieve an operational drone within the desired timeframe.

Loyal Wingman

The concept of loyal wingman drones is for one or more to fly alongside, or in the vicinity of, a piloted military aircraft  – currently for the UK that would be  Typhoon and F-35, but in the future, Tempest – with the drones carrying out specific tasks such as surveillance, electronic warfare (i.e. radar jamming), laser guiding weapons onto targets, or air-to-air or air-to-ground strikes.   Rather than being directly controlled by an individual pilot on the ground as the UK’s current fleet of Reaper drones are, these drone fly autonomously, sharing data and information with commanders on the ground via the main aircraft.

In addition, loyal wingman drones are supposed to be cheap enough that they can be either entirely expendable or ‘attritable’ (that is not quite expendable, but cheap enough so that it is not a significant event if it is shot down or crashes).  However, Aviation International News, who spoke to an RCO insider, said that the focus would now centre on exploring a drone that fits somewhere between Category 1 (expendable airframes) and Category 2 (attritable airframes). According to the source, there is also a Category 3, which is survivable, indicating a larger airframe with stealth and other advanced technology and no doubt much more expensive.

Which drones will win out to take part in the ‘fly-off’ and come out on top as the UK’s loyal wingman drone is hard to predict, not least because the MoD’s criteria appears yet to be fixed.  However a few of the likely competitors are already emerging:  Read more

Smoke and mirrors: FoI shows there appears little substance to the RAF’s drone swarm squadron

Artist’s impression of aircraft launching swarming drones

14 July 2022 – updated below

A Freedom of Information (FoI) investigation has found that an RAF Squadron set up more than two years ago to take the lead on developing the UK’s swarming drones capability has yet to undertake any testing or trialling of drones and currently has just four personnel assigned to it. The revelation raises serious questions about Ministry of Defence (MoD) statements that it is rapidly progressing towards operational use of swarming drones.

While the MoD initially refused to answer any questions about 216 Squadron’s inventory or testing/trialling of drones, arguing the commercial confidentially mean that such details could not be released, this was overturned after an appeal and the MoD admitted that “216 Squadron has not conducted any UAV tests since it was reactivated on 1 April 2020.”

Background

Early in 2019, as part of his ‘Defence in Global Britain’ speech, then Defence Secretary Gavin Williamson announced plans to develop a new capability of swarming drones. “I have decided to use the Transformation Fund  [ring-fenced  funds to develop new military technology] to develop swarm squadrons of network enabled drones capable of confusing and overwhelming enemy air defences.”  Rather rashly, the Secretary of State went on to  declare “we expect to see these ready to be deployed by the end of the year.”    Read more

Drone Wars Select Committee submission on use of the military drones in countering migrant crossings

In Sept 2021 the prototype of the UK’s new armed drone flew from Scotland to undertake a mission involving a search pattern over the Channel.

Boris Johnson announced in mid-January that the armed forces was to take charge of limiting migrants crossing the English Channel. The announcement was described by The Times as one of a series of populist announcements by the embattled PM to save his premiership.

Soon after, the Defence Select Committee announced that it was to scrutinize the decision and sought submissions from interested parties:

“The Government’s decision that the Royal Navy should take over operations in the Channel has taken Parliament (and it seems the MOD) by surprise.  There are significant strategic and operational implications surrounding this commitment which need to be explored.”

Shockingly, both the Ministry of Defence and the Home Office refused to submit evidence or send ministers to answer questions from the Committee.

Our full submission to the Committee on this issue – looking in particular at how drones are often seen as a ‘solution’ – is available on their website, while here we offer a short summary.

  • Drone Wars argues that the military should not be involved in day-to-day border control operations in the absence of any threat of military invasion. This role is primarily a policing and enforcement role centred on dealing with civilians which should be conducted by civilian agencies.  Military forces are not principally trained or equipped to deal with humanitarian or policing situations.  The UK borders are not a war zone, and civilians attempting to enter and leave the country are not armed combatants.

Read more

None too clever? Military applications of artificial intelligence

Drone Wars UK’s latest briefing looks at where and how artificial intelligence is currently being applied in the military context and considers the legal and ethical, operational and strategic risks posed.

Click to open

Artificial Intelligence (AI), automated decision making, and autonomous technologies have already become common in everyday life and offer immense opportunities to dramatically improve society.  Smartphones, internet search engines, AI personal assistants, and self-driving cars are among the many products and services that rely on AI to function.  However, like all technologies, AI also poses risks if it is poorly understood, unregulated, or used in inappropriate or dangerous ways.

In current AI applications, machines perform a specific task for a specific purpose.  The umbrella term ‘computational methods’ may be a better way of describing such systems, which fall far short of human intelligence but have wider problem-solving capabilities than conventional software.  Hypothetically, AI may eventually be able to perform a range of cognitive functions, respond to a wide variety of input data, and understand and solve any problem that a human brain can.  Although this is a goal of some AI research programmes, it remains a distant  prospect.

AI does not operate in isolation, but functions as a ‘backbone’ in a broader system to help the system achieve its purpose.  Users do not ‘buy’ the AI itself; they buy products and services that use AI or upgrade a legacy system with new AI technology.  Autonomous systems, which are machines able to execute a task without human input, rely on artificial intelligence computing systems to interpret information from sensors and then signal actuators, such as motors, pumps, or weapons, to cause an impact on the environment around the machine.  Read more

Military applications at centre of Britain’s plans to be AI superpower

The UK government published its National AI Strategy in mid-September, billed as a “ten-year plan to make Britain a global AI superpower”.  Despite the hype, the strategy has so far attracted curiously little comment and interest from the mainstream media.  This is a cause for concern  because if the government’s proposals bear fruit, they will dramatically change UK society and the lives of UK Citizens.  They will also place military applications of AI at the centre of the UK’s AI sector.

The Strategy sets out the government’s ambitions to bring about a transition to an “AI-enabled economy” and develop the UK’s AI industry, building on a number of previously published documents – the 2017 Industrial Strategy and 2018 AI Sector Deal, and the ‘AI Roadmap‘ published by the AI Council earlier this year.  It sets out a ten year plan based around three ‘pillars’: investing in the UK’s AI sector, placing AI at the mainstream of the UK’s economy by introducing it across all economic sectors and regions of the UK, and governing the use of AI effectively.

Unsurprisingly, in promoting the Strategy the government makes much of the potential of AI technologies to improve people’s lives and solve global challenges such as climate change and public health crises – although making no concrete commitments in this respect.  Equally unsurprisingly it has far less to say up front about the military uses of AI.  However, the small print of the document states that “defence should be a natural partner for the UK AI sector” and reveals that the Ministry of Defence is planning to establishment a new Defence AI Centre, which will be “a keystone piece of the modernisation of Defence”, to champion military AI development and use and enable the rapid development of AI projects.  A Defence AI Strategy, expected to be published imminently, will outline how to “galvanise a stronger relationship between industry and defence”.  Read more