UK Government release ‘Drone Ambition Statement’ to renew push to open UK skies to drones

Amidst the hoopla of the Farnborough Airshow last week, the Government launched what it described  as it’s ‘Drone Ambition Statement’.  However, ‘Advancing airborne autonomy: Commercial drones saving money and saving lives in the UK’ is in reality, a hodgepodge of previous announced policies, ‘refreshed’ statistics and pleas to business and regulators to ‘get on with it’.  The frustration in the document – both with the public’s scepticism about the benefit of drones and the regulators hesitance on safety grounds to throw open the skies to drones – is palpable.

Fantasy Figures

Underpinning the government’s push to open UK skies to drones is the belief  that it will bring huge financial benefit to the UK.  A 2018 report from consultants PriceWaterhouseCoopers (PWC) sought to put a figure to this conviction and came up with the suggestion that drones ‘could’ give a £42bn “uplift” to the UK economy by 2030. While this figure has been quoted so many times in the media that its now almost taken as fact, in reality it is basically guess work.

As part of this renewed push on drones, the government asked PWC to update its report (hence, Skies Without Limits v2.0) and the consultants now suggests that by 2030 drones could contribute up to £45bn to the UK economy. However as PWC makes clear, this figures is dependent on “best case adoption” and notes that “many challenges must be addressed to unlock this potential estimate.”  Indeed.  These ‘challenges’ include developing the necessary technology to allow many more drones to fly within UK airspace –  and in particular, to allow them to fly ‘Beyond Visual Line of Sight’ (BVLOS); putting in place a new regulatory framework that would allow drones to fly alongside crewed aircraft; and finally changing the public’s negative perception of drones.  Read more

Military drone crash update: Ukraine war toll and and ‘hidden crashes’

Bayraktar TB2 reportedly shot down near Kursk, April 2022

Updated – see below

We’ve added details of another 21 crashes to our drone crash database for the first half of 2022  – although 14 of them occurred in the context of the on-going war in Ukraine, so many will have likely been shot down.

It’s important to be aware that we only include larger (Class II and Class III) drones in our database, typified by medium altitude/long endurance drones like the Reaper MQ-9 and Bayraktar TB2.   There have been dozens of verified reports of smaller drones being shot down or crashing in that conflict but they are outside the scope of our study. However, it is extremely likely that other large drones have also crashed/been shot down in that conflict but have not been verified.

In addition, as we regularly try to explain, there are many crashes of large drones that simply aren’t made public and so don’t make it into our database. More on this below.

Ukraine

As in any armed conflict, there is a significant amount of disinformation and confusion surrounding on-going events.  We are only including details of large drone crashes that have been verified  – primarily through use of images.  @robLee@UAVTracker and @Oryx have done sterling work detailing on-going events.  Significantly, older Soviet-era reconnaissance drones have also been pressed into service by both sides, with indications that they may be being used as ‘flying missiles’.  One of these flew off course, crossing several European borders before crashing in the Croatian capital, Zagreb.  Both Russia and Ukraine have denied responsibility.  In a similar case, a Ukrainian operated Bayraktar TB2 went off course and ended up crashing off the coast of Romania.

Large UAVs crashed/shot down relating to Russia/Ukraine war (till 30th June)

Date Operator Drone type Details/source Location
Jun 28, 2022 Ukraine Tu-143 Reys Mid-flight (shot down) Russia
May 10, 2022 Russian Tu-141 Strizh Mid-flight (shot down?) Ukraine
May 7, 2022 Ukraine Bayraktar TB2 Mid-flight Romania
May 1, 2022 Ukraine Bayraktar TB2 Mid-flight (shot down?) Ukraine
Apr 27, 2022 Ukraine Bayraktar TB2 Mid-flight (shot down?) Russia
Apr 27, 2022 Ukraine Bayraktar TB2 Mid-flight (shot down?) Russia
Apr 25, 2022 Ukraine Bayraktar TB2 Mid-flight (shot down?) Russia
Apr 12, 2022 Ukraine Tu-143 Reys Mid-flight (shot down) Ukraine
Apr 7, 2022 Russia Inokhodets (Orion) Mid-flight (shot down?) Ukraine
Apr 2, 2022 Ukraine Bayraktar TB2 Mid-flight (shot down) Ukraine
Mar 30, 2022 Ukraine Bayraktar TB2 Mid-flight (shot down) Ukraine
Mar 17, 2022 Ukraine Bayraktar TB2 Mid-flight (shot down) Ukraine
Mar 11, 2022 Russia Forpost Mid-flight (shot down?) Ukraine
Mar 10, 2022 ? Tu-141 Strizh Mid-flight Croatia

Elsewhere, during the first six months of 2022, large drones operated by the US, India, France, Saudi Arabia and Philippines air forces have crashed or been shot down.  The variety of operators and types of UAVs crashing gives an indication of how difficult it is to operate these systems.  Remotely controlling aircraft is incredibly complex and a huge variety of problems can arise leading to an abrupt termination of the flight, including  mechanical issue, electrical failure, lost-communication link, weather problems and human error.  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

General Atomics plan flights of its new drone in UK – safety fears rerouted previous flights in the US    

A SkyGuardian UAV at General Atomics’ California factory.

General Atomics is to bring a company-owned SkyGuardian drone to the UK in the summer to undertake “a series of operational capability demonstrations” for the UK and other NATO members. The RAF’s soon to be acquired Protector drone is a version of the SkyGuardian with a range of UK modifications. The aircraft is being shipped into the UK rather than flying in (possibly due to the controversy around a previous flight to the UK) and will be based at RAF Waddington. Read more

New briefing on ‘Protector’ drone as MoD pressure on air safety regulator revealed

As the Guardian today reveals that MoD pressured air safety regulators over the first flight of the UK’s new Protector drone into the UK, we are publishing a new four-page briefing raising many questions about the programme.

The Guardian article, which revealed that MoD pressured the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) to delay safety notifications to prevent possible protests shows that clandestine pressure has been effectively applied on an independent public regulator by the MoD which resulted in the erosion of safety norms.

Even more worrying perhaps is that in the near future, the CAA is due to make a significant decisions on whether the MoD’s new military drones, equipped with largely untried ‘detect and avoid’ technology, are safe to fly in UK airspace. The fact that the MoD has already successfully exerted pressure to get the CAA to bend safety rules in relation to the flight of a Protector is extremely disturbing. Read more

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.  Read more