On the horizon: drone spies coming to UK skies

SkyGuardian flight trials over the UK in September 2021

In the last few months Drone Wars and UK Drone Watch have organised protests outside RAF Waddington in Lincolnshire and RAF Lossiemouth in North East Scotland. We were protesting the decision to allow US arms manufacturer General Atomics to conduct experimental flights of their SkyGuardian drone in UK airspace. SkyGuardian is a prototype of the UK’s new armed drone, named Protector, which will replace the UK’s current Reaper armed drone fleet in 2024. As we have shown, the prospect of such large drones regularly flying in UK airspace raises significant safety and accountability concerns.

In response to our actions, the Secretary of State for Defence, Ben Wallace, and the Chief of the Air Staff, Sir Mike Wigston, went out of their way to insist that the presence of SkyGuardian in the UK was innocuous. The Civil Aviation Authority (CAA), which manages British airspace, described SkyGuardian as a “civilian aircraft” and approved it to fly in the UK. However, dig a little deeper and the dangers posed by these flights become clear. Drones, which can provide a constant presence and are relatively economical to fly, are likely to be increasingly used for domestic surveillance by state and private operators. Rising drone surveillance poses threats to human rights, privacy and data protection. Strong regulation of such operations is therefore essential to overcome secrecy and prevent abuses of power.  Read more

CAA opens UK skies to military drones

The Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) has granted permission to US drone company General Atomics to conduct experimental flights of its new SkyGuardian drone in UK airspace. The MoD is buying 16 SkyGuardian drones, but renaming them as ‘Protector’. This is the first time that large military drones will be allowed to fly in the UK outside of segregated airspace and the decision will be seen as a breakthrough by the drone industry, who will see it as the beginning of opening UK skies to a whole host of drones to fly ‘beyond visual line of sight’ (BVLOS).

The news came in an ‘airspace alert’ issued by the CAA following the announcement that temporary airspace rules were to be put in place around the bases where the drone will be based. The terse, one-sentence paragraph in the alert said:

“The CAA has also completed an in-depth review and issued the authorisation to General Atomics operate within the UK.”

The lack of detail reflects the lack of transparency about the process to allow General Atomics to use its largely untried and untested ‘Detect and Avoid’ (DAA) equipment in the flights.

General Atomics has developed its DAA equipment to supposedly replicate an on-board pilot’s ability to ‘see and avoid’ danger. This is the bedrock upon which all air safety measures are built and – as we reported back in 2018 – regulators at the CAA were deeply sceptical as to whether remote technology can replace an on-board pilot in busy airspace such as UK skies. Test flights of the drone in the US last summer, which were due to fly over San Diego, were routed away from city after apparent concerns from US safety regulators.  Read more

New details of US drone flights in UK this summer raise concerns over safety and corporate cronyism

New details about the British government’s plans to allow US defence manufacturer General Atomics to conduct experimental flights of its new SkyGuardian drone in the UK this summer have emerged in MOD documents published on the Civil Aviation Authority’s (CAA) website.

SkyGuardian flights are to be conducted from RAF Waddington in Lincolnshire, beginning in July and lasting until September, and then from RAF Lossiemouth in North East Scotland, until mid to late October.  The RAF is acquiring a version of the SkyGuardian drone, which it is calling Protector, and which will be modified for UK requirements. Protector will enter service in 2023 to replace the UK’s current Reaper armed drone fleet.  General Atomics’ SkyGuardian flights are significant because they signal the coming integration of large drones, such as Protector, into UK airspace.  This is set to further normalise the use of large drones within the UK, not only by the military, but a host of other operators.

The planned SkyGuardian flights also raise concerns over safety and questions about undue corporate influence over the UK government and airspace regulators. In terms of safety, both RAF Waddington and RAF Lossiemouth are surrounded by houses, school buildings and local businesses. Planned flights of the same drone over San Diego in the US last year did not go ahead, apparently after safety objections from US airspace regulator, the Federal Aviation Authority (FAA).  The flights instead took place away well from populated areas. US and British armed forces have regularly flown large drones for more than twenty years, yet the constant communication links which they rely on are often lost. Such drones also continue to crash for several other reasons—including poor maintenance and pilot error.  Recent public polling carried out for UK Drone Watch found that 67% of respondents were worried about the safety implication of large drones flying in the UK, with 70% agreeing that such flights should be kept to segregated airspace.  Read more

General Atomics plan flights of its new drone in UK – safety fears rerouted previous flights in the US    

A SkyGuardian UAV at General Atomics’ California factory.

General Atomics is to bring a company-owned SkyGuardian drone to the UK in the summer to undertake “a series of operational capability demonstrations” for the UK and other NATO members. The RAF’s soon to be acquired Protector drone is a version of the SkyGuardian with a range of UK modifications. The aircraft is being shipped into the UK rather than flying in (possibly due to the controversy around a previous flight to the UK) and will be based at RAF Waddington. Read more

Watchdog reports continuing problems with Protector and Watchkeeper drone programmes

General Atomics SkyGuardian drone which UK MoD chooses to call ‘Protector’

Last month the Ministry of Defence (MoD) announced that it had signed a £65 million contract for delivery of three new Protector drones for the Royal Air Force (RAF).  In an upbeat press release, which included the bold claim that the drones are “capable of strike missions anywhere in the world,” Defence Secretary Ben Wallace enthused that “the UK is proving once again that we are a world leader in defence technology” (although Protector will actually be purchased from General Atomics, a US-based company, and manufactured in the US) and that the drones would be “meeting the UK’s defence and security needs for decades to come.”

A few days before the MoD’s announcement, however, a more impartial assessment of progress of  the Protector programme was published by the government watchdog, the  Infrastructure and Projects Authority (IPA) in its annual report on progress of  major projects.  The Protector programme was rated as ‘amber’ by the IPA in its confidence assessment for delivery of the programme, meaning that “successful delivery appears feasible but significant issues already exist, requiring management attention. These appear resolvable at this stage and, if addressed promptly, should not present a cost/schedule overrun”. The rating is an improvement from amber-red last year (“successful delivery of the project is in doubt”) and red the year before that (“successful delivery of the project appears to be unachievable”).    Read more