2014 has been a year of growing awareness in the media of the dangers posed by civil drones, while the drone lobby and entrepreneurs on both sides of the Atlantic continue to push regulators to relax current restrictions. It is likely that push will come to shove in 2015. Read more
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 UK written 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.
Despite strict Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) regulations that control and limit the use of drones in UK airspace slowly but surely the number of drone operators is increasing. In late 2011 Drone Wars UK revealed that around 50 to 60 annual ‘permissions’ were granted by the CAA to private companies and public institutions to fly drones in UK airspace. Read more
Guest post by Ben Hayes and Chris Jones.
Today the Transnational Institute and Statewatch are jointly publishing a new report on the European Union and drones, entitled Eurodrones Inc. Our report examines the considerable economic and political support given to the drone industry by the European Union, which has now reached a level at which we can speak of an emerging EU drone policy based on two interlinked principles. First, an urgent need to develop and use drones in Europe for a wide and as yet unlimited range of purposes. Second, the various barriers – chiefly regulatory and technical – to the introduction and routine use of drones in EU airspace must be overcome. Read more
In an obscure working document, the European Commission has announced it is working on plans to open European civil airspace to unmanned drones by 2016. This follows the signing by President Obama earlier this year of the FAA Appropriations bill which mandated that US airspace must be opened to drones by 2015.
The European Commission (EC) plan was revealed in a Staff Working Paper published on September 4th 2012 entitled “Towards a European strategy for the development of civil applications of Remotely Piloted Aircraft Systems”.
The document summaries the conclusions of the year-long European Unmanned Air Systems Panel which began meeting in July 2011and recommends setting up a European RPAS [Remotely Piloted Air Systems] Steering Group (ERSG). The aim of the ERSG, writes Peter van Blyenburgh, President of UVS International, (the main European drone lobby group) on the UAVS Vision website is to “foster the development of civil RPAS by planning and coordinating all the activities necessary to achieve the safe and incremental integration of RPAS into European air traffic by 2016”.
Surprisingly – or not depending on your view of the inner workings of the EC – membership of the ERSG has already been decided and it has already met to begin its work before its existence was announced. The group is co-chaired by the EC’s Directorate-General Enterprise & Industry and Directorate-General Mobility & Transport. Other members include representatives of other EC directorates plus what it calls a whole range of “stakeholders”. These include industry bodies including UVS International, the main drone lobby group.
The ERSG has established three working groups and is planning to publish by December 2012 a “comprehensive roadmap” towards the integration of civil drones into European airspace by 2016.
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.
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?