UK Drone Watch

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

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.  Alongside our continuing focus on the military use of drones, we now have a related programme, ‘UK Drone Watch’ which examines the opening of UK skies to large BVLOS drones and in particular their use for security and surveillance purposes.

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.

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.

Background

A number of stakeholders including UAV manufacturers, commercial transport companies and the defence industry are pushing to change current airspace rules to allow large unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVS), commonly known as drones, to fly in UK airspace.  For safety reasons, the use of UAVs within domestic airspace is strictly controlled. Small drones (under 20kg) are allowed to fly within the UK either for recreation or commercial purposes but under strict conditions. They must not fly above 400 feet or closer than 50 metres to a person, car or building, and most crucially the drone must stay within sight of the operator.

Larger drones (over 20kg) and those seeking to fly ‘beyond line of sight’ (BVLOS) of the operator, must currently seek specific permission from the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) to undertake flights. These restrictions are seen as a severe hindrance to the growth of the use of unmanned drones.

Within the military context, the use of drones has grown enormously over the past 12 years and commercial and industrial interests have been pushing for some time to open civilian skies to commercial versions of these systems. Consultants PricewaterhouseCoopers (PWC) released a report in 2018 predicting that the drone industry could be worth £42bn to the UK economy by 2030 if current rules were relaxed, and although there were questions about the validity of the figures, they undoubtedly caught the attention of ministers.

However, there remain two significant challenges for the industry to overcome. Firstly, safety. Although large drones have been regularly flown by the military for more than 20 years, communication links are regularly lost and they continue to crash for a variety of reasons.  Alongside this, the bedrock of aviation safety – upon which all other safety measures are built – is that pilots are able to visually look and take avoiding action if they see danger. All other electronic safety aids are meant to assist, not replace, a pilot visualizing danger ahead. Without an onboard pilot, drones are not able to achieve this foundational safety task. The drone industry is developing electronic ‘detect and avoid’ (DAA) systems, which are designed to replicate this safety aspect of the pilot’s role, but the technology has yet to convince airspace regulators that it is ready for use.

The Ministry of Defence will undertake a public consultation in 2021 as part of plans to change airspace rules to fly their new ‘Protector’ drone in the red zone (above)

The second barrier to overcome if large drones are to fly in civil airspace is public opinion. Polling shows that the public have serious concerns about the increasing use of drones. This is partly because of issues related to their military use, but also because most personal experiences of drones are perceived as being intrusive and noisy. In addition, there are also clear safety and privacy concerns.

Despite concerns about safety and public support, the government is moving forward with plans to allow UAVs to fly beyond line of sight within the UK. While the CAA, as regulator, has a safety responsibility, its role is also to implement government policy. It is now encouraging pilot projects to allow large drones to fly beyond line of sight (although in temporarily restricted airspace) and supporting the development of DAA technology. Perhaps most significantly, the CAA is assisting the MoD with plans to segregate airspace around RAF Waddington in Lincolnshire in order to fly the new version of the ‘Protector’ armed drone and test its DAA capability.

Currently, it appears that drone manufacturers are happy to have the RAF at the forefront of developments to fly large drones BVLOS in the UK. It is no doubt felt that this will help with public perception problems as there is significant goodwill towards the armed forces, so their involvement may help overcome objections to this activity.

Privacy

If drones are given unfettered access to UK airspace, this will likely have a significant negative impact on privacy within the UK. The use of CCTV, both in public and private spaces, has mushroomed over the past decade, and there is no reason to believe that private companies, police forces and government agencies will not use drones to increase surveillance and data gathering. While there is public support for measured use of surveillance – to prevent street crime, for example – the benefits of deploying technology to carry out long-term, persistent surveillance must be balanced against the costs and dangers.

Although surveillance technology is often initially deployed with strict safeguards, at times of crisis or during emergencies, these controls are eroded and systems are used beyond their agreed purpose. Earlier this year, for example, a US Custom and Border Protection (CBP) Predator drone was diverted from its activities at the US/Mexico border to monitor public protests in Portland.

Our research shows that despite current limitations on operating drones, police forces have, over the past five years, increasingly been using drones for a variety of operations, including surveillance of protest and demonstrations. Opening UK airspace to larger drones, which will be able to stay in the air far longer than helicopters, and certainly far long than current unmanned systems, will no doubt increase police use. While it may be appropriate under certain circumstances to conduct targeted surveillance operations, regular, blanket surveillance using drones should be resisted as it changes the nature of the relationship between the individual and the state.

CAA has given permission for Project Dreadnought to trial flying drones between a hospital and a testing lab in Essex.

But it is perhaps in relation to the commercial and private security sector that there is most concern. The vast UK private security industry which monitors business and commercial premises are also likely to turn to using drones for long-term surveillance operations on cost grounds, and will acquire huge amounts of data via video and other sensors aboard their drones. Beyond straightforward use of drones for security purposes, commercial companies are likely to use drones to increase data on potential customers in order to better target them with marketing. One example regularly given by the industry, is that garden centres may use BVLOS drones to undertake surveys of local gardens in order to gather data and better target their marketing literature.

For Drone Wars, a related concern is that allowing large military drones to fly within the UK for training and domestic security purposes will further normalise the use of remote-controlled drones for lethal military operations overseas. Such operations raise significant legal and ethical problems that require attention at the international level. However, states operators, such as the UK, are resisting accountability and transparency in this area, for a variety of reasons.

In order to ensure appropriate regulation of BVLOS drones, Drone Wars wants to ensure that a proper public and parliamentary debate take place on these issues. Currently, the government appears to only be listening to military and commercial interests, with their promise of huge economic benefits, and industry’s insistence that safety issues can be managed through a technological fix.  Due to the lack of transparency, at this stage, there appears to be little awareness, understanding or appreciation of the proposed changes amongst parliamentarians or the public. This needs to change if the rights of UK citizens are to be protected.

The conflation of government and commercial interests in this area requires sustained scrutiny. The government intends to implement a set of policies which could significantly impact privacy and civil liberties within the UK. However, they have specifically chosen to set up a quango to implement these changes, which has the effect of bypassing parliamentary examination and keeping the public at arm’s length. An in-depth knowledge of the technology under consideration (and its limitations) is also a further barrier for many in grappling with this issue.

Our work seeks to challenge the democratic deficit in this area, and to empower parliamentarians and the public to ensure that appropriate controls are put in place to protect privacy and civil liberties.