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.
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.