Safety fears over military drone test flights

Protests are being planned after the UK Civil Aviation Authority sanctioned the testing of a massive new military drone​ at RAF Lossiemouth despite concerns over the safety of hundreds of people living beside the Moray air base.

The drone is called SkyGuardian, aka Protector, and is made by US arms firm, General Atomics. It will be tested at RAF Lossiemouth in September, after ​test flights around RAF Waddington in England in August.

The drone has a wingspan of 79 feet and weighs more than five and half tonnes but planned flights of SkyGuardian over San Diego in the US ​​did not proceed in 2020 after safety objections from airspace regulators. They instead took place in a desert away from populated areas​.

T​he UK Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) has granted a request for “temporary danger areas” at both UK bases to allow the drone flights to take place​.

But UK Drone Watch, which is monitoring the expansion of Britain’s use of drones, plans to protest to raise awareness of safety and privacy issues. Other critics of the test flights include SNP defence spokesperson, Stewart McDonald MP, who claimed the CAA had yet to provide a “compelling reason why SkyGuardian can safely fly over Scottish homes yet not over Californian ones”.

The drone, named SkyGuardian by General Atomics, is called Protector by the UK Government which bought 16 of the drones. In 2015, former Prime Minister David Cameron announced that the UK’s Reaper drones would be replaced. 

Capable of flying up to 40 hours continuously, SkyGuardians are expected to improve the UK’s military intelligence capabilities. The Minister for Defense Procurement Jeremy Quin said they would provide the Royal Air Force with a “vast global reach allowing us to monitor and protect the battlespace for hours on end.”

The new drone is due to participate in the UK’s Joint Warrior Exercise planned for late September over Scotland and the North Sea.

Last year, however, test flights of SkyGuardian over the Californian city of San Diego were cancelled after resistance from federal regulators who raised safety issues. Those concerns followed an incident in 2014 when a US Customs and Border Protection drone was deliberately downed outside San Diego after experiencing a mechanical problem.

The drone wars continue to expand, and these flights are to demonstrate the new drone to European and other militaries as well as trialling new technology that will enable such drones to fly in civil airspace.

Tom Street, UK Drone Watch

Test flights of SkyGuardian in the UK look set to go ahead now and protests are due to take place outside RAF Waddington, four miles south of Lincoln, on 14 August, and on 18 September at RAF Lossiemouth, north east of Inverness.

UK Drone Watch said RAF Lossiemouth is surrounded by houses, school buildings and local businesses, so there were “clear safety concerns”, given the fact regulators in the US decided that flights should take place over a desert.

The campaign group pointed to its recent public poll which found that 67 per cent of respondents were worried about the safety implication of large drones flying in the UK. Seventy per cent agreed that such flights should be kept to segregated airspace. 

UK Drone Watch also says the public are concerned that large military drones may be used for surveillance and intelligence gathering, which threatens people’s privacy while raising ethical concerns. 

Tom Street, coordinator for UK Drone Watch said: “Although the military tends to be highly trusted by the British public, the controversial nature of military drones, in particular their use for surveillance and intelligence gathering, as well as for lethal targeted killing operations, is likely to undermine public support.”

He added: “Civil society groups and journalists have documented hundreds, if not thousands, of innocent civilians who have been killed in US drone strikes around the globe. 

“However the drone wars continue to expand, and these flights are to demonstrate the new drone to European and other militaries as well as trialling new technology that will enable such drones to fly in civil airspace.”

Stewart McDonald MP also expressed concern. He recently raised a question at Westminster about the test flights.

“The Civil Aviation Authority has yet to provide a compelling reason why SkyGuardian can safely fly over Scottish homes yet not over Californian ones,” he told The Ferret.

“In the face of significant pressuring being applied to the CAA to open up the skies to large drones, their first priority must always be the safety of the public and other air users.”

McDonald added: “The technology which will define a new era of conflict – like unmanned aerial vehicles, artificial intelligence and cyber attacks – is evolving faster than legislation can keep up.

“In the absence of a clear plan to establish global rules and norms around the use of these new technologies, the UK Government must commit to greater transparency over their use, especially when civilians are involved.”

Chris Cole, coordinator of Drone Wars UK said he was “extremely disappointed” that the CAA gave the go-ahead to General Atomics to conduct experimental flights of its new drone in UK airspace “without any public consultation”. 

He added: “While no doubt under pressure from those with a vested interest in expanding drone operations, as public regulator the CAA should absolutely prioritise safety and, given the public concern about such operations, at the very least, be open and transparent about its decision making process.”

In reply the CAA – which oversees airspace – described SkyGuardian as a “civilian aircraft” and said it was “satisfied that it meets the safety requirements for a large remotely piloted aircraft”. 

The CAA told The Ferret it had approved a request for a “short-term airspace change to safely accommodate a civilian operated SkyGuardian remotely piloted aircraft” in UK airspace. This would cover flights in August, September and October where the aircraft will operate from RAF Waddington and RAF Lossiemouth.

“As the regulator of civil airspace in the UK we seek to provide equal access for all potential users. This short-term change allows the SkyGuardian and other airspace users to fly safely in the UK,” a CAA spokesperson added. 

“Sky Guardian is operating in airspace where it will be receiving a service from air traffic controllers, the temporary airspace changes make sure other aircraft are excluded from the area unless they and SkyGuardian can sense and avoid each other during the period of departure, arrival and while the aircraft is operating within the Temporary Danger Areas established around the aerodromes.”

A spokesperson for the Ministry of Defence said:As a registered civil aircraft, the SkyGuardian will be operating in full accordance with Civil Aviation Authority regulations just like any other aircraft in UK airspace.

“This deployment will assist in the development of the detect and avoid technology which will permit Protector to fly safely in all UK airspace.”

Drone
Photo Credit: iStock/Digital Storm

Drones, Policing and General Atomics

General Atomics is a defence company, founded in 1955 as a division of General Dynamics. The firm did not reply to our request for a comment. 

Its website claims the firm is a leading manufacturer of remotely piloted aircraft systems and related systems. “Designed and engineered for long-endurance, our unmanned aircraft and sensor systems have raised the standard and redefined intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance tactics and precision strike capabilities,” the statement adds.

The use of drones is controversial. It emerged recently that at least ten police forces in England had used drones to monitor public protests. 

Protests monitored ranged from gatherings of far-right groups in Nottingham to an animal rights demonstration in Salisbury, and Extinction Rebellion and HS2 protest marches in Warwickshire, a national campaign against a new high speed railway linking up London with the Midlands.

Black Lives Matter protests were monitored most frequently, with the Surrey, Cleveland, Staffordshire, Gloucestershire and West Midlands forces revealing they had used drones during last year’s demonstrations. 

Police Scotland has used drones to monitor anti-social behaviour in parks in Glasgow and Stirling. The force currently has three remotely operated drones based in Aberdeen, Inverness and Glasgow. 

The two drones in the north of Scotland were intended to help in missing person investigations, while the third was for training purposes. But a report submitted to the Scottish Police Authority (SPA) policing performance committee in November said the drones had been used for purposes other than searching for missing persons, and that Police Scotland had not sought the authority of the SPA to do so.

The secretive role of the UK in drones deployed abroad has also prompted concern from human rights groups. Amnesty International issued a report in 2018. It was called ‘Deadly Assistance: The role of European states in US Drone Strikes’, and called for a public inquiry into the UK’s role in America’s drones programme. 

Amnesty said four RAF bases in Yorkshire, Cambridgeshire, Lincolnshire and Northamptonshire had been heavily implicated in deadly US drone attacks. According to the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, US drone strikes have killed as many as 1,551 civilians in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Somalia and Yemen since 2004.

The Scottish Government declined to comment as it does not have any jurisdiction in this area.

This story was published in tandem with the Sunday National on 8 August 2021. It was updated on the afternoon of 8 August 2021 to correct the locations of RAF Lossiemouth and RAF Waddington.

Photo Credit: iStock/Florent Martin

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