Crossing a Line: How the use of drones to secure borders threatens everyone’s rights

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A new report published today by Drone Wars UK investigates the increasing use of military-style drones by governments to patrol state borders. The study, which examines the use of drones at the borders of the UK, EU, US, Russia, China, Australia and elsewhere, concludes that drones are contributing to the militarisation of everyday borders as part of an integrated set of security technologies – including satellites, sensors and smart walls – which pose significant challenges to personal privacy and civil liberties.

Crossing A Line: The Use of Drones to Control Borders‘ also explores the ethical questions and risks that the use of drones for border and wider public surveillance raises. The United Kingdom is now at the beginning of a journey that would see drones used regularly across the country for surveillance of the general public, and not just above the English Channel.

The report also argues that the highly publicised operation to use Watchkeeper military drones to watch for refugees crossing the Channel has little practical value but serves to help familiarise the public with the use of drones in the domestic context. Despite an intense media campaign by the government trumpeting ‘Operation Devran’ (the use of military aircraft to monitor irregular migration over the Channel) our study shows that the drone had little impact and  played a minimal role in support to the UK Border Force. The drones flew on average only once every other day in their first month of operation, with their use dropping to a total flight time of less than twenty-four hours in the second month.  Due to safety issues, they were only permitted to fly in certain areas covered by temporary airspace restrictions, and could only fly in suitable weather conditions.  Read more

Announcing a new initiative:  UK Drone Watch

Since 2010, Drone Wars UK has been shining a spotlight on the military’s use of drones and the impact on peace and security around the globe. Now, both in the US and in Europe, large military-grade drones which fly ‘beyond visual line of sight’ (BVLOS) are moving from the battlefield to the domestic front.

Here in the UK, the government is rapidly pushing ahead with plans to enable large unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) to fly freely within UK airspace as part of its Airspace Modernisation Strategy.  These plans are keenly supported by the growing drone industry and the Ministry of Defence (MoD) who are taking a significant lead in this area with plans, for example, to fly the latest version of the Predator drone – which the MoD is calling ‘Protector’  – in UK airspace.  Ministers argue that the planned changes present exciting opportunities for business to create high-tech jobs and to boost the economy across the UK.  While these plans may well be a boon for some, it is vital that the negative aspects of ‘beyond visual line of sight’ (BVLOS) drone use within the UK are examined, and if such flights are to go ahead, privacy and safety protections are factored in from the start.

Elbit Systems Hermes 900 during UK trial flight for Coastguard and National Police Air Service in September 2020

It should be noted that there are no plans for primary legislation to implement these changes which would given an opportunity to subject these changes to democratic scrutiny via parliamentary debate. Instead a quango, the Airspace Change Organising Group (ACOG), has been established by the Department for Transport (DfT) and Civil Aviation Authority (CAA), to coordinate and implement government plans in this area.  We believe it is vital that this democratic deficit is publicised and challenged and the public have their say in controlling drones in UK skies.

Over the past few months, we have seen military drones deployed at the UK border to deter refugees crossing the channel, the RAF advancing plans to fly the ‘Protector’ drone in the UK,  UK coastguard and police assessing large Israeli drones for operations and other drone test programmes advanced under the COVID crisis.

Alongside our continuing focus on the military use of drones, we will now have a related programme examining the opening of UK skies to large BVLOS drones and in particular their use for security and surveillance purposes within the UK.

  • For more information see our dedicated webpage: Drone Watch UK
  • Read our first post of this initiative: Benchmarking Police Use of Drones
  • Join us soon for an online discussion on developing campaigning around opening of UK skies to BVLOS drones  (details tbc).