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 →
Drone Wars is today publishing a dataset of just over 250 large military drone crashes that have taken place over the past decade (2009-2018). The full dataset is available online here. This post is a brief summary of the data but there is a great deal more detail in our accompanying report which is available here.
Although there continues to be some disagreement about the classification of Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs), most adhere to the NATO system which divides them into three broad categories based on weight. Read more →
Drone Wars UK understands that the Ministry of Defence (MoD) will announce on Monday (24 Feb) that live training flights of the Watchkeeper drone will begin over Salisbury Plain in Wiltshire.
The Watchkeeper drone has been developed under a £900m MoD contract by U-TacS, a joint-venture company owned by Thales UK and Israeli company Elbit Systems. Watchkeeper has now gained certification from the Military Aviation Read more →
While safety is rightly the primary concern, civil liberties issues are also seriously affected by the new legislation. Last week the co-chairs of the Congressional Privacy Caucus, Ed Markey &Joe Barton, wrote an open letter to the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) pointing out the “potential for drone technology to enable invasive and pervasive surveillance without adequate privacy protection” and requesting information as to how the FAA were to address privacy concerns.
In particular the pair want to know
What privacy protections and public transparency requirements has the FAA built into its current temporary licensing process for drones used in U.S. airspace?
Is the public notified about where and when drones are used, who operates them, what data are collected, how are the data used, how long are they retained, and who has access to that data?
How does the FAA plan to ensure that drone activities under the new law are transparent and individual privacy rights are protected?
How will the FAA determine whether an entity applying to operate a drone will properly address these privacy concerns.”
“The current legal framework with respect to observations from above by government is not particularly protective of privacy. Two of the most relevant Supreme Court cases, California v. Ciraolo in 1986 and Florida v. Riley in 1989, addressed law enforcement’s use of manned aircraft to perform surveillance of a suspect’s property. In both cases, the court held that observations made from “public navigable airspace” in the absence of a warrant did not violate the Fourth Amendment.
These precedents suggest, in a world in which UAVs will be inexpensive and plentiful, that government operators might have broad legal latitude to use them for surveillance. Non-government operators may have even fewer constraints regarding surveillance. And today’s cameras are far more capable than those of the 1980s and can acquire stunning high-resolution imagery from hundreds of feet away — imagery that can be processed using ever more capable computers.”
However, the op-ed’s authors, John Villasenor and Ben Wittes also make the not unreasonable point that given “the challenges the agency will face in safely providing for the operation of what may soon be tens of thousands of UAVs, operated by tens of thousands of people from unconventional flight locations… to broaden its already unenviable task, to include this hotly disputed field [of privacy] that lies far from its core competency, is a recipe for bad and technologically uneven outcomes that will satisfy no one.”
The consequences of allowing unmanned drones to fly within domestic airspace both in terms of safety and privacy are beginning to be apparent to all. That such a serious step should be taken in such a rush and under such pressure, simply because of industry lobbying is ludicrous. There needs to be a serious re-think, as well as an investigation into how companies with a vested industry were able to force through such a huge change with little apparent regard to the consequences.
Meanwhile other drone ‘beasts’ continue to rampage. There has been two days of violence in Gaza following an Israeli drone strike. According to the Irish Times “Gaza residents said a 42-year-old civilian was killed in an Israeli air strike on Hamas training facility. Seven members of the man’s family were wounded, including his father, wife and five of his children.”
And no doubt, US and UK drone strikes in Afghanistan continue completely unreported. Time these drone ‘beasts’ were caged too.
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!