Today Statewatch and Drone Wars UK are co-publishing a new report into the use of unmanned drones in UK airspace. Back from the Battlefield: Domestic Drones in the UKwritten by Chris Jones of Statewatch examines the current use of drones in UK airspace by public and private bodies looking in particular at their use by police and border control authorities. The report argues that it is essential for widespread debate, discussion and democratic decision-making on the issue of ‘domestic’ drones in order to establish acceptable limits on their deployment and use by public authorities, private companies and individuals.
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.
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?
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.”
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!
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.