Drone lobby cracks open US skies – will it happen in the UK?

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.

Romancing the drone…

Anyone with even a passing interest in the military soon discovers the peculiar phenomenon of ‘military speak’, in which a spade can never quite be called a spade. 

Bombs and bullets are called ‘ordnance consumables’, a missile strike or bombing raid is known as a ‘kinetic event’, and despite its offensive purpose, the industry and its business must always be described as ‘defence’.  Military speak is essentially about maintaining a psychological distance between the day-to-day sanitized business of planning, preparing (and profiting) from armed conflicts and the awful brutal reality of warfare.   

The same coyness over language applies of course to drones.  Over the past few years I‘ve lost count of the number of times I been told not to call drones ‘drones’.  The current preferred term in the military is ‘Remotely Piloted Air System’ (RPAS) after they rejected ‘Unmanned Aerial Vehicle’ (UAV) as being ‘off message’ (“such a generic term can be unhelpful, particularly when working with an uninformed audience” said the MoD last year). 

 

Pretty in Pink?

The term ‘drone’, though widely used and understood by the public and media alike, is snubbed both by the military and those wanting to get a civil drone industry of the ground.  Not only is it seen as too dull a name for such a ‘sophisticated piece of kit’ but its association with death and destruction is of course problematic.

This week the Guardian revealed that the Unmanned Aerial Systems Association, a UK lobby group, is planning a public relations offensive to counter the negative image of drones.  This website (Drone Wars UK) was cited by the lobby group as part of the problem to be overcome.   They recommend  that drones deployed in the UK “be decorated with humanitarian-related advertisements, and be painted bright colours to distance them from those used in warzones”  As the guardian reports:

“John Moreland, the general secretary of UAVSA, said the industry was uncomfortable with the word “drones” and wanted to find new terminology. “If they’re brightly coloured, and people know why they’re there, it makes them a lot more comfortable,” he said.

The idea that the public could be persuaded to accept drones by painting them bright colours has rightly been mocked across the blogosphere.

A more serious strategy in the attempt to rebrand drones is for advocates to play up their potential to be used by green or human rights groups. Last week the New York Times carried a think piece arguing that drones should be used to monitor human rights abuses. Like many drones themselves however, the idea has come crashing down to earth after being comprehensively rubbished by human rights advocates (see the excellent post from Laurenist and also from Mark Kersten).  Even one noted supporter of drones, @drunkenpredator,  ridiculed the idea on twitter.

Drones do not have a negative image because of the work of Drones Wars UK, but because of the awful impact that they have in Afghanistan, Pakistan and elsewhere, and because of the serious concern that remote warfare will mean more warfare. 

The public will not be reassured by any renaming or rebranding exercise.  What is needed is for the legitimate concerns about drones in warfare and their impact on civil liberties to be taken seriously.