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

General Atomics bring in BAE Systems to lobby for ‘Protector’ drone to fly in UK

Drone manufacturer, General Atomics, hosted an event in London on 24 January in order – as its press release put it – “to recognize UK companies that are contributing to operational systems such as MQ-9 Reaper and MQ-1C Gray Eagle, and the new MQ-9B SkyGuardian RPA program” (which the UK MoD is calling ‘Protector’).

As part of the day, the US company signed agreements with three major UK defence companies: Raytheon, MBDA and BAE Systems.  Raytheon will supply and integrate Paveway IV bombs onto the new British drone while MBDA will integrate and supply it with the new Brimstone missile. BAE Systems, however, will play a wider role, helping to enable the new drone to be flown within the UK airspace. Read more

New ‘Protector’ drone to fly into UK next month

US drone manufacturer General Atomics is to fly one of the updated versions of the Predator drone – dubbed SkyGuardian by the company but named as the ‘Protector’ by the MoD – into the UK next month.  The drone will undertake a 20 hour flight from the company’s test centre in North Dakota direct to RAF Fairford in Gloucestershire, arriving on 11 July to be part of the static display at the Fairford International Air Show later that week (13 – 15 July).  It will be the first transatlantic flight for a medium altitude, long endurance (MALE) drone. Read more