Last November we reported that the UK Defence Select Committee was considering an inquiry into the growing use of drones as part of a wider inquiry leading up to the Strategic Defence Review. Today, the Committee has announced further details in a press release (below). Drone Wars UK early submission to the inquiry is available here. More on this soon no doubt. Read more
Some new information has emerged this week about future British drone programmes as BAE Systems held a media briefing at their Warton site to talk about their unmanned projects (our invitation was presumably lost in the post).
According to the report by Defense News the first flight of BAE’s Taranis drone has been put back yet again until 2013. Originally due to make its maiden flight in 2011, it was first delayed until early 2012 for “technical and other reasons” but now won’t fly at all this year. Little has been heard about Taranis since it was unveiled to journalists (and protestors) in July 2010. At the briefing journalists were allowed a distant peak at the drone as it sat in its hangar. The UK government gave BAE Systems £40m of funding to develop unmanned combat systems in January 2012.
Perhaps surprisingly BAE told reporters that it was restarting its Mantis programme. Mantis is an armed medium altitude, long endurance (MALE) drone of similar size and shape to the Reaper. Unlike Reaper, however Mantis is not remotely controlled but flies autonomously following a pre-programmed flight plan. Mantis reached the end of its development phase when it flew for the first time at the Woomera test range in Australia in October 2009. Until now it has been suggested Mantis would simply form the basis of the proposed joint BAE-Dassault drone, Telemos.
BAE also said it hoped it would sign contracts with the UK and French government to further develop the Telemos drone at the Farnborough airshow next month. Telemos is BAE and Dassault’s offering to fill the UK-French ‘requirement’ for a new armed drone. However the change of administration in France has created uncertainty about the proposal as the newly appointed French defence minister announced in May that he was going back to “square one” on the plan to build a joint military drone.
Elsewhere BAE continues to undertake work to in order to allow unmanned aircraft to fly within UK airspace. As part of the ASTRAEA (Autonomous Systems Technology Related Airborne Evaluation & Assessment) programme, BAE will begin undertaking a series of test flights using a converted Jestream aircraft that can fly autonomously as an unmanned aircraft. At least twenty test flights will take place over the Irish sea over the next six months. BAE issued a glossy diagram to explain the work that they will be undertaking (large pdf here).
The other main ‘British’ drone, Watchkeeper – which is being jointly developed by Israeli company Elbit Systems and Thales UK – seems to have missed out on being chosen by the French army as their new drone. As part of the Anglo-French defence treaty, France was supposed to consider Watchkeeper for the contract but it was announced this week that they have instead bought further Sperwer MKII drones from French company, Sagem. Given this new contract and the fact that France have announced they are withdrawing early from Afghanistan it is unlikely that the French will want Watchkeeper as well. For more info on Watchkeeper follow Wandering Raven’s blog and see this recent comprehensive article.
Finally, I can’t finish a post about British drones without mentioning the Reaper. The Guardian reports this week that British reapers have now fired 281 weapons in Afghanistan up until the end of May 2012 and rightly points out that MoD continues to insist that only four civilians have been killed in these British drone strikes whilst at the same times maintaining that they cannot know how many people have been killed.
In the article, human rights lawyer Erica Gaston argues
“there has been little to no visibility on how drone targets are selected or reviewed. There have been many cases in Afghanistan and elsewhere in which the visual identification of a “target” through drone technology proved catastrophically wrong. Such past mistakes have raised the bar on the level of transparency and public accountability required. The ‘trust us’ approach is no longer good enough where drones are involved.”
Quite. Interestingly, the Labour MP Madeleine Moon, who is on the Commons defence select committee, also said: “Greater priority must be given to ensure those killed in drone attacks are not innocent civilians. Current figures coming out of the Ministry of Defence do not indicate that the level of scrutiny needed is in place. It is imperative that steps are put in place, not only to protect innocent civilians, but demonstrate that have done so.”
In stark contrast to this suggestion, the MoD have written to me (letter here) saying they will no longer answer my Freedom of Information requests on the use of UAVs in Afghanistan “until at least the end of operations in Afghanistan.” Needless to say I have appealed (letter here) and will continue to demand more transparency and public accountability on the use of British drones.
Just a few days after a senior US counter-terrorism expert warned that US drone strikes were turning Yemen into the “Arabian equivalent of Waziristan”, US drone strikes yesterday aped the tactic of ‘follow up’ strikes used by the US in Pakistan.
According to CNN, a strike in which seven suspected Al-Qaeda militants were killed was followed by a strike on local residents rushing to the scene to help the injured. Local sources said that between eight and twelve civilians were killed in the second, follow-up strike. A Yemeni security officials expressed regret for the civilian casualties and injuries. “The targets of the raids were not the civilians, and we give our condolences to the families of those who lost a loved one.”
Over the past few weeks US drone strikes and other military activity has been ratcheted up in Yemen as the White House has given ‘greater leeway’ to the CIA and JSOC to launch attacks. Micah Zenko at the US Council on Foreign Relations estimates there will be more US strikes this month in Yemen than there has ever been in a single month in Pakistan. For details see the Bureau of Investigative Journalism’s excellent database of US covert activity in Yemen.
Drone strikes continue in Pakistan of course and no doubt in Afghanistan although almost no details of these are released. Last week the US apologised after a strike killed a mother and her five children in Afghanistan but it was not revealed if the strikes was from a drone or a manned aircraft.
Drone fatalities continue to spread around the globe. As we reported last year, US drones from Iraq were moved to Turkey to help the Turkish military “monitor” Kurdish separatists. Today (16 May) it was revealed by the Wall Street Journal that information from one of these drones led directly to a Turkish military attack in which 38 civilians were killed last December. Last week an engineer working for an Austrian company was killed and two others injured when a drone they were demonstrating to the South Korean military crashed.
Meanwhile preparations aimed at enabling the use of unmanned drones to fly in civil airspace continues at a brisk pace both in the US and the UK.
Yesterday the US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) announced that it had met the deadline for the first changes demanded by the new FAA Act aimed at allowing drones to fly in US civil airspace by September 2015. The Act mandated that the FAA must streamline the process for government agencies to gain Certificates of Authorization (COA) to fly drones within US civil airspace within 90 days.
Meanwhile in the UK BAE Systems has begun a series of flight tests over the Irish Sea as part of a programme aimed at allowing unmanned drones to fly within UK civil airspace. BAE Systems is one of a number of military aerospace companies funding the ASTRAEA (Autonomous Systems Technology Related Airborne Evaluation & Assessment) programme. According to the ASTRAEA website it is “a UK industry-led consortium focusing on the technologies, systems, facilities, procedures and regulations that will allow autonomous vehicles to operate safely and routinely in civil airspace over the United Kingdom.”
According to The Engineer, BAE has fitted an “autonomous navigation system” on a Jetstream 31 passenger aircraft to enable it to fly without a pilot – although a pilot was on board in case of problems.
A BAE spokesperson told the Guardian that the tests “will demonstrate to regulators such as the Civil Aviation Authority and air traffic control service providers the progress made towards achieving safe routine use of UAVs [unmanned air vehicle] in UK airspace.” Further flights will take place over the next three months testing infra-red systems as well as ‘sense-and-avoid’ systems.
The drone lobby in the US has had a stunning success in pushing its agenda of enabling unmanned drones to fly freely in civil airspace. The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) Bill has been passed by both Senate and Congress and now simply awaits President Obama’s signature before becoming law. The bill sets a deadline of 30 September 2015 by which the FAA must allow “full integration” of unmanned drones into US civil airspace
This deadline, along with several other provisions were pushed by the US drone lobby group, Association of Unmanned Vehicle Systems International (AUVSI). In fact AUVSI boast on its website about helping to draft some of bill.
Given that there is as yet no proven technology that would allow drones to ‘sense and avoid’ other aircraft, the deadline of just 3½ years before full integration is either incredibly ambitious – or just plain foolish. Already pilots are expressing their disquiet as Business Week reports:
Commercial airlines and pilots are less than thrilled with the idea of sharing the sky. They point out there’s no system that allows operators of unmanned aircraft to see and steer clear of piloted helicopters and planes. Nor are there training requirements or standards for the ground-based “pilots” who guide them. It’s also not clear how drones should operate in airspace overseen by air-traffic controllers, where split-second manoeuvring is sometimes required. Until unmanned aircraft can show they won’t run into other planes or the ground, they shouldn’t be allowed to fly with other traffic, says Lee Moak, president of the Air Line Pilots Assn.
Privacy issues also seem to have been ignored by the bill (and AUVSI, naturally). Hours before the bill was passed Jay Stanley of the ACLU urged Congress
“to impose some rules (such as those we proposed in our report) to protect Americans’ privacy from the inevitable invasions that this technology will otherwise lead to. We don’t want to wonder, every time we step out our front door, whether some eye in the sky is watching our every move…. The bottom line is: domestic drones are potentially extremely powerful surveillance tools, and that power — like all government power — needs to be subject to checks and balances.”
Despite these safety and civil liberties concerns, thanks to the drone lobbyists thousands of drones will soon be flying in US airspace. The question then is could it happen here? Will unmanned drones be allowed to fly freely in UK civil airspace too? While it may seem like science fiction at the moment, there are many vested interests working hard behind the scene to make it happen.
At the European level, the EU has been having a series of meetings over the past year to prepare a strategy document for the introduction of drones within European airspace as the Sunday Times recently reported last week (quoting us).
European and UK lobby groups acting on behalf of the drone industry are pushing the advantages of drones and talking up their usefulness in many news publications. New Scientist magazine reports how Unmanned Vehicle Systems International, a lobby group based in the Paris, says that drones will become “vital tools in many fields, from helping police track stolen cars to assisting emergency services in crisis situations such as fires, floods and earthquakes, to more prosaic tasks like advertising or dispensing fertiliser from the air.” (“High time to welcome the friendly drones” said the New Scientist editorial) . The BBC website also last week reported on how drones are cheaper and better at checking on whether farmers are complying with Common Agricultural Policy rules.
In the UK, as regular readers will know, the ‘industry-led consortium’ ASTRAEA, aims “to enable the routine use of UAS (Unmanned Aircraft Systems) in all classes of airspace without the need for restrictive or specialised conditions of operation.”
The programme is funded 50% by the taxpayer and 50% by some of the UK’s biggest military companies. According to the ASTRAEA website, the UK drone lobby group, Unmanned Aerial Vehicle Systems Association (UAVS) and the Ministry of Defence are also ‘stakeholders’ in the programme. As the UAVS website states on their website much of their representation takes place “behind closed doors”.
There are two main hurdles for the drone lobby to overcome before unrestricted drone flying will become the norm in the UK. First is the safety issue. At the moment the UK Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) which is responsible for UK civil airspace severely restricts the use of drones (but see our article here ). Their main objection comes from a safety perspective. At last years ASTRAEA conference, John Clark from the UK CAA told delegates that it is for industry and the UAV community to prove that it will meet standards – “whatever you propose it must be safe” he said. There is a long way to go before the drone industry will satisfy the CAA and the public that drones are at least as safe as ‘manned’ aircraft.
Second is public skepticism. The MoD and the drone industry are well aware that the public do not like the thought of drones flying above their heads in the UK. While there will be a lot of activity over the next year or twoby lobbyists focusing on reassuring the public that drones are neither frightening nor dangerous, there also needs to be discussion about what is acceptable to the British public. As Ben Hayes of the campaign group Statewatch says in the BBC piece mentioned above, while there are lots of things that drones can be useful for, “the questions about what is acceptable and how people feel about drones hovering over their farmland or their demonstration – these debates are not taking place.”
Unlike the US, the debate on drones in civil airspace is still wide open. We need to make sure it is not just the industry lobbyists whose voices are heard.
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.