Extent of unmanned drone use within UK civil airspace revealed

Aerovironment Wasp III - one of drones being flown in UK civil airspace

Analysis of information received in response to a series of Freedom of Information requests to the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) has revealed that around fifty to sixty companies and public bodies per year are being granted “blanket permission” to fly unmanned drones within UK civil airspace.   With very few exceptions each flight must remain under 400 feet and within 500 metres of the operator.

While names of companies and institutions who have been granted permission to fly drones has not been revealed, the type of work being undertaken includes aerial photography and filming,  surveying of buildings and land, emergency services work, and surveillance in support of law enforcement, data collection, evidence gathering and security.

The Civil Aviation Authority grants three types of ‘permissions’ to fly unmanned aircraft : a) permission for a one-off flight,  b) permission for a series of flights in a limited time frame, or c) blanket permission which must be renewed on an annual basis.

The CAA has told Drone Wars UK that out of the 100 applications submitted between January 2010 and September 2011, 98 blanket permissions were issued.  With one exception all the applications were for drones weighing less than 20kg.  While in the time frame many of the 98 applications will have been renewals a conservative estimate is that around fifty to sixty companies and public bodies are regularly flying unmanned drones in  UK civil airspace.

Chris Cole of Drone Wars UK said:  “I expected to find that the CAA would have mostly granted one-off permissions to fly drones in UK airspace, with perhaps a handful of blanket permissions granted each year. However around ten times the number of blanket permissions are being granted. Once this blanket permission has been granted, who monitors what these companies are doing with their drones?”

Some work being undertaken by these drones seems fairly innocuous, including application for tasks such as “surveys for geography, environment and archaeological survey”  and “data gathering for insurance, building surveys, health and safety etc.“  The majority of applications however, contain little real information about the work being undertaken with  “stills & video photography from the air” and “aerial photography & video” being common.  Occasionally other types of work are mentioned such as: “evidence gathering, surveillance and search” and “surveillance in support of UK law enforcement.”

While the CAA are responsible for ensuring that these unmanned flights within UK civil airspace are flown  safely, who is ensuring that the public’s privacy and civil liberties are protected?

Drones: PR, Proliferation and Prangs in the Pacific

The Bureau of Investigative Journalism (TBIJ) have continued their excellent work exposing US drone strikes in Pakistan by publishing extensive new research.  According to their research, more than 160 children are among at least 2,292 people reported killed in US attacks since 2004.  In addition they suggest that there are credible reports of at least 385 civilians among the dead.   Full details including a searchable database of  drone strikes is available on thebureauinvestigates.com.

Clearly rattled, US officials have gone on the PR offensive and challenged the figures (AFP reported an anonymous US official saying “The  numbers cited by this organization are way off the mark”)  and US officals have also attempted to discredit the report by suggesting that a source, Mirza Shahzad Akbar, a Pakistani lawyer who is suing the Central Intelligence Agency on behalf of civilians has an “agenda” and has ‘possible links with Pakistani Intelligence agencies’.    However a New York Times editorial on the drone strikes this weekend challenged the CIA’s claims that no civilians have been killed saying “We find that hard to believe”.  So do a great many people.

As well as the US military going on a PR offensive,  the drone industry too is trying to challenge the ‘killer drones’ image.  According to National Defense Magazine

“the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International hosted a news conference at the National Press Club on August 10 to talk about the warm and fuzzy side of robotic machines [with] several executives on hand …to discuss the humanitarian roles of robotic equipment.”

As well as launching its PR offensive, AUVSI are trying to persuade the Federal Aviation Authority (FAA) to relax the rules on flying drones in civil airspace.  AUVSI are arguing that ‘limitations to UAV flight in U.S. airspace are hindering the industry’s growth and getting in the way of job creation.’  (We have previously reported on efforts to similarly persuade the Civil Aviation Authority in the UK.)  Privacy and safety it seems have no place to limit the ‘tremendous impact’ that lifting such “restrictions” would bring. By co-incidence It was announced this week that the FAA are investigating Rupert Murdoch’s  News Corps for using a drone in civilian airspace to film flooding in North Dakota.

Drone strikes andproliferation have continued over the past two weeks – notably a strike in Yemen on 1st August killed 15 people and a strike in North Waziristan killed over twenty people on 10th August. Press reports have also indicated that Italian Predator drones are also now flying missions over Libya.    Russia is about to show off its new combat drone, Lutch, at the Moscow airshow and the Welsh Government have been granted a certificate by the local planning authority to use the Llanbedr military airfield in Snowdonia to test and develop drones.   The Welsh government are freeholders of the site and are keen to lease it to Llanbedr Airfield Estates who wish to develop  the site.

There was much press coverage in the run-up to the test flight of DARPA’s new Hypersonic drone, the Falcon, last week, including this piece in the Guardian.  The Falcon drone, built by Lockheed Martin at a cost of about $320 million, is designed to fly at twenty times the speed of sound and undertake strikes anywhere in the world in less than one hour.  Red faces all around then when the test failed and the Falcon crashed into the Pacific.  Back to the drawing board!

Investigation into Drone and Helicopter near miss

Desert Hawk III Drone

The Guardian has revealed  that a British Desert Hawk III drone was in a near collision with two military helicopters over Salisbury Plain.  The incidents, revealed by safety investigations by the UK Airprox Board, took place on February 12th.  According to the Guardian, the Airprox investigation found that:  

An Apache helicopter escorting a Chinook on a simulation exercise entered the landing zone and was at one stage “on a collision course” with the drone… Last-minute manoeuvres by the UAV controllers prevented a collision.  Three hours later a Sea King helicopter entered the same drone’s airspace and came within 300 metres of it.  The UAV operator spotted the helicopter and avoided collision with an “emergency orbit”. “This was a very close encounter and had the [UAV operator] not reacted so quickly a mid-air collision could have occurred,” the report said. 

The Ministry of Defence (MoD) put the blame for the near miss on the helicopter pilots.  “On both occasions Desert Hawk 3 was operating safely under remote pilot control when a manned aircraft incorrectly entered the dedicated air space allocated to it,” it said. 

The Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) which controls UK airspace has specifically allocated dedicated airspace – over Salisbury Plain and Parc Aberporth in Wales – to allow military drones to be tested.  Even within this test space,  it seems that near misses or collisions may be  inevitable.   

 The CAA is coming under increasing pressure from drone manufacturers like BAE Systems as well as the security services to allow much wider use of unmanned drones within UK airspace  (see Surveillance drones in the UK?).  Given the amount of  drones that crash and go rogue (see Crash of the Drones) this must be opposed.

Surveillance drones in the UK?

Speaking about armed drones to a group in Essex  last night I was asked about the use of drones to spy on people in the UK.  I get this question regularly since the Guardian reported in January that a number of police forces are working with BAE Systems in a Home Office backed project to develop a national drone plan. 

Currently the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) does not allow unmanned drones to be flown in UK airspace with the exception of certain military test sites.   When Merseyside police jumped the gun and used a drone to track a stolen car, they were threatened with prosecution by the CAA  and had to promise not to use drones again.    (I have been told that drones have been sighted at various demos but presumably after the high-profile rebuke of Merseyside police this is not happening now).

It is not just the UK that does not allow unmanned drones to be flown in civil airspace for safety reasons .  Frustrated by this, the military industry has been working on ways to put pressure civil aviation authorities.   The latest  bit of pressure is a ‘year long study by 23 European military companies’ into how manned and unmanned aircraft can fly together.  Flight Magazine reports:  

“One of the major issues at the heart of UAS development today is the integration of these vehicles into civil airspace. We need to ensure proper segregation of existing air traffic and maintain a high level of safety for all airspace users to the standards of international civil aviation,” says Pierre-Eric Pommellet, Thales senior vice-president in charge of defence mission systems.   While calling the SIGAT findings “decisive” and “a major outcome for European defence ministries” considering the technical and regulatory aspects of operating manned and unmanned aircraft in the same airspace, no details on the findings were released.

In my experience the military industry usually gets what it  want.  Whilst the CAA holds the upper hand at the moment, I suspect that over the next few year, in particular in the run up to the 2012 Olympics,  there will be increasing pressure to allow drones to undertake surveillance work in UK airspace.

Meanwhile, as I am beginning to regular say at the end of these posts, there has been another drone stike in Pakistan.

PS –  The existing six-mile training area aound Parc Aberporth in Wales to be extended.