The MOD is investing heavily in US-built armed drones and is about to begin testing them in congested skies over populous areas of England and Scotland. Tim Street argues that undue corporate and military influence on regulators is putting civilians at unacceptable risk.

Drone Wars and UK Drone Watch are organising a demonstration outside the RAF Waddington airbase in Lincolnshire on Saturday 14 August from 12pm. We will be there because last month airspace regulators decided that test flights of the SkyGuardian ‘Remotely Piloted Aircraft’ could go ahead in the UK this summer. SkyGuardian flights are to be conducted from RAF Waddington from August until September and then from RAF Lossiemouth in North East Scotland, until the end of October. 

SkyGuardian is a large and extremely powerful military drone made by US arms manufacturer General Atomics. It is the latest version of the MQ-9 Reaper drone used by the UK and US to carry out numerous targeted killings overseas during the last decade. The company has been working closely with the Ministry of Defence (MOD) to get approval for these flights. This essentially means that General Atomics has been invited to use the UK as a stage on which to demonstrate SkyGuardian to potential customers, and trial technology allowing such aircraft to fly freely in domestic airspace. These flights are therefore important as they signify the coming integration of large drones into UK airspace for military operations, as well as civil and commercial uses.

The MOD is strongly backing the SkyGuardian flights because it is buying a version of the drone, which it is calling ‘Protector’. The UK is acquiring up to 26 of these drones, which will enter service in 2023, to replace its current fleet of 10 armed Reaper drones, which have been used in Afghanistan, Iraq and elsewhere. Astronomic sums are thus being spent by the UK, both to buy more powerful drones and increase its use of and reliance on them. For example, the Reaper drones are not allowed to fly in domestic airspace for safety reasons, but the MOD is lobbying regulators to allow Protector to fly freely throughout the UK so it is not segregated from other aircraft.

Risks to public safety

There are several reasons why we believe these flights should not go ahead. Many innocent civilians have been killed in US drone strikes around the globe. The flights also raise concerns regarding safety and questions about undue corporate influence over the UK Government and airspace regulators. In terms of safety, both airbases 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 the US airspace regulator. The flights instead took place well away from populated areas.

US and British armed forces have regularly flown large drones (similar to SkyGuardian) 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.  

It is vital that residents of Lincolnshire, North East Scotland—and those living in between—know the risks of large military drones being flown over their homes and workplaces. However, as far as we are aware, they have not been consulted on the issue by relevant authorities. Instead, the MOD applied to the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) for a ‘temporary danger area’ to be established around both airbases. This is to provide segregated airspace for up to 10,000 feet, and for several miles, around the bases so that SkyGuardian is separated from other aircraft as it takes off and lands. However, above this height, and for much of the time the aircraft will be flying in the UK, it will be unsegregated. This is because SkyGuardian will need to transit to other areas to take part in military exercises, potentially over populated areas, and in the same airspace as other aircraft, all whilst flying beyond the visual line of sight (BVLOS) of its operator.

The problem is that drones do not have an on-board pilot able to spot potential hazards and cannot reliably avoid other aircraft. Significant resources have thus been spent by governments and industry to develop on-board Detect and Avoid (DAA) technology, which is meant to ensure that drones keep at a distance from hazards and can take action to avoid a collision. Such systems are a critical safety feature for drones flying in shared airspace and will be essential if these aircraft are to regularly conduct long-range flights and a wider assortment of operations. But DAA remains largely untried and untested and will need to be approved by national airspace regulators.

Corporate interests and military pressure

This summer SkyGuardian will be equipped with an ‘experimental’ DAA system. In response to our insistence that the CAA conduct an independent safety review of this technology, they stated that:

“the development of Detect and Avoid capability is a critical enabler to the widespread integration of Unmanned Aircraft Systems into UK airspace… Lessons learned through these types of use cases will clearly inform and advance us toward the goal of integration. I can assure you that the safety of flight to all UK airspace users is at the forefront of the CAAs decision-making policy.”

What the CAA’s reply shows is that the SkyGuardian flights are being used to advance DAA technology through the backdoor, thus accelerating the integration of large drones regularly flying BVLOS in domestic airspace. Again, all these developments are set to hugely enrich drone manufacturers such as General Atomics.

To push their agenda forwards, we believe it is likely that at the end of last year General Atomics approached the MOD asking them to ensure these UK test flights would be approved. Importantly, whilst the CAA’s regulatory role includes a responsibility to ensure the safety of airspace users and the public, it also has a duty to implement government policy. This means that it is having to both regulate and promote BVLOS drone use, which the SkyGuardian flights would involve, raising concerns of a conflict of interest. What’s more, Sir Stephen Hillier, Chair of the CAA, was until recently Chief of the Air Staff at the RAF. It is clearly problematic that the CAA—an independent regulator which should be prioritising public safety—appears to be being unduly influenced by military and corporate interests.

Flying Protector in the UK is justified as being necessary to conduct security operations (including for counter-terror purposes), train drone personnel, and support civil authorities at times of emergency. In addition to the severe dangers that drone warfare poses to international security, the prospect of large military drones regularly conducting operations in UK airspace raises clear concerns about privacy, safety and accountability. Public and parliamentary discussion is therefore vital before these drones take over our skies.

Tim Street is a campaigner with UK Drone Watch.

The views and opinions expressed in posts on the Rethinking Security blog are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the position of the network and its broader membership.

Image Credit: Crown Copyright. General Atomics Aeronautical Systems MQ-9B SkyGuardian over the Welsh coast, UK, July 2018.