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Drones: Risk to Aviation

Volume 627: debated on Tuesday 18 July 2017

I beg to move,

That this House has considered the risk to UK aviation from drones.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Roger. On Sunday 2 July, the runway at Gatwick Airport was closed twice—once for nine minutes and once for five minutes—as a result of the incursion of a drone. Five flights were diverted to other airports and several others were put into holding patterns, at great cost and inconvenience to airlines, the airport and, most importantly, passengers. In 2014, Airprox Board investigations into aircraft near misses with drones found that there were three, of which one was of the most serious category A. In 2015, the figure had risen to 27, with 13 category A incidents. In 2016, it had risen to 71, with 26 category A incidents—a huge increase in the most serious type of incidents. I secured this debate to find out from the Government what action they are taking and considering to counter that increasing threat to the lives of aircraft crew, passengers and those living under flight paths.

I am not anti-drone, and nor is the British Airline Pilots Association. I thank BALPA, along with the Civil Aviation Authority, Heathrow Airport, National Air Traffic Services and the House Library, for providing information on this subject. When properly and safely controlled, drones are of great value in, for example, precision agriculture, inspection of power cables, aerial photography, mapping and police work. Just this morning, I spoke with a constituent who runs Cloudbase Images Ltd. He was recently asked to carry out some work in the proximity of an airport. He contacted air traffic control there and they discussed a safe way of carrying out that work, which meant modifying the client’s requests. That is an example of how drones should and can be operated safely and professionally.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for bringing this issue to Westminster Hall for consideration. He mentioned the British Airline Pilots Association, which has warned that the use of drones could cause what it refers to as a catastrophic crash. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that now is the time to step in and, perhaps, draw up the protocols used by the firm that he referred to and make them part of aviation law? There is not much sense in closing the door after the horse has bolted. Now is the time to get the protocols in order.

I am most grateful to the hon. Gentleman for raising that point, and I will come on to it. He is absolutely right. One of the reasons for having this debate is to find out what the Government are doing and urge them to take action quickly where it is necessary.

My constituent was concerned because the airport said that very few people contacted them, even though it is adjacent to a big city where a lot of professional drone work is carried out. He was worried that others were not taking steps to contact air traffic control or to make the appropriate safety arrangements.

There has been enormous growth in the ownership of drones. Some 530,000 were bought in 2014 alone. Of course, the vast majority are for leisure use. When used responsibly, they are a great asset. They encourage interest in aviation and aerodynamics and lead to innovation. But there is also irresponsible or downright dangerous use, which poses a risk to aircraft and passengers. The key is regulation and enforcement that protects aviation without seriously damaging what is becoming an important sector of the economy.

Drones are currently subject to the Civil Aviation Act 1982 and the Air Navigation Order 2016, which stipulate—for all drones—that they must not “endanger persons or property” and that whoever is controlling the drone

“must maintain direct, unaided visual contact”

at all times. Drones weighing more than 7 kg must not be flown at a height of more than 400 feet, or 500 metres horizontally, nor in

“Class A, C, D or E airspace”


“within an aerodrome traffic zone during the notified hours of watch of the air traffic control unit”.

To operate a drone outside those limits, or to carry out aerial work—even non-commercial work—requires an operating permit from the Civil Aviation Authority. That permission is given on a case-by-case basis by the CAA. By September 2016, 2,500 permits had been issued, which strikes me as a small number compared with the number of people who I believe are carrying out work with drones at the moment, whether commercial or non-commercial. There are further requirements for someone who wishes to operate regular flights with a drone. The CAA will also wish to be assured of the competence of the person piloting the drone.

I wonder how many people who purchase drones for recreational or commercial use are fully aware of the requirements. I spoke with someone recently—someone who I and presumably they themselves would regard as responsible—who had lost control of a drone. It had flown more than 10 miles at a height of 100 metres before running out of power.

So my first question to the Minister is what work is being done to ensure that all purchasers of drones, whether for leisure or commercial use, are aware of existing regulations. Although I believe that further, tighter regulation is essential—I will come on to that—the Department and CAA can do much right now.

Looking ahead to what needs to be done, the first task is to establish how much damage the collision of a drone with an aircraft would cause. The Government, together with the CAA, BALPA and the Military Aviation Authority, have carried out research on that and the report is complete; I understand that it will be published soon. When will that be and what action does the Minister intend to take on publication?

From speaking to those involved in this area, I understand that the risks arising from a drone impact are likely to be serious, even with very small drones, and that there is a particular risk to helicopters, military or civilian, such as those used by the police, search and rescue or air ambulance services. The possibility of a drone strike is now listed by the Joint Helicopter Command of our armed forces as one of the five greatest risks to life in its sphere of operations.

BALPA believes that a drone of only a few tens of grams could cause serious damage in a collision at speed. The most popular drone weighs 1.5 kg— 1,500 grams. We will need careful and comprehensive regulation covering all but the smallest and least powerful of drones.

The hon. Gentleman is making a telling speech about the need for action. Is it not time for some Government action? They consulted on possible regulations some time ago now; the consultation finished months ago. They were then waiting for a framework of regulation from the European Aviation Safety Agency. That was published in May. It is not too much to expect Ministers to come forward with a proper action plan for the appropriate regulation of drones, which could promote safety and at the same time safeguard the innovation that the responsible use and production of drones can provide.

I agree with the hon. Gentleman, but I know that the Minister takes the matter extremely seriously and that the Government are looking at it. It is important that it is taken up quickly, because technology moves on. People are buying drones in the thousands every week and they need to know what the situation is. Airprox incidents are occurring at more than one a week at the moment, and some of them are extremely serious. That is not just in the UK but across the world. The UK could be a world leader in ensuring safety in this area.

I believe that we will need careful and comprehensive regulation covering all but the very smallest and least powerful of drones. In other words, it is likely that almost all drones sold will need to be covered by specific regulations, not just those over 7 kg, which are currently subject to the stricter rules. As the hon. Member for Birmingham, Northfield (Richard Burden) said—he speaks from great experience, having looked at these matters for the Opposition—the Government published a consultation in December 2016 with a final date of March 2017. He also rightly referred to the European publication from May this year. It is time that we had a response. One of the major reasons for my calling this debate is to give the Government the opportunity to set out the timetable for their response.

It has become clear to me as I have looked at this problem that there is no one solution. More regulation needs to be introduced urgently, and I am grateful to BALPA for sharing with me the work that it has done on this issue.

First, we need compulsory regulation for all drones. Perhaps there could be a de minimis exemption for the very smallest and least powerful, but, as I said, BALPA reckons that even a drone of a few tens of grams can cause serious damage, so it would have to be de minimis in the strict meaning of that phrase. It is essential that any drone capable of causing damage to aircraft and on the ground is registered to a named individual on purchase, and the registration should be transferred if the drone is sold on. All drones should be sold with a copy of the drone code, and the registration process should include a statement that the owner has read and understood it, and agrees to abide by it, so that it is taken seriously by purchasers of all drones.

Secondly, if somebody wishes to operate drones above a certain size and capability—again, I suggest it should be a fairly small size, given the potential damage of a small drone on impact—they should be required to acquire a licence that shows their competence to do so. Thirdly, there should be mandatory geo-fencing around airports and other sensitive areas, such as prisons, so that drones are prevented from flying in places that would create significant safety risks.

Fourthly—I believe this needs to be looked at carefully—third-party liability insurance should be considered for all registered drones. It is clear that even relatively small drones are capable of causing serious damage or injury. Accidents do happen, and people should know that they are protected from potential bankruptcy when they are buying something that does not cost them very much in the first place. In addition, if people have to take out insurance, they think about what they are doing much more carefully than they would if they think there are no risks involved. Buying insurance shows that a person knows there are serious risks. Finally, investment in technology is required to allow air traffic controllers to see drones when a conflict with manned aircraft is possible.

As always, there is a balance to be struck when introducing tighter regulation. However, consider how safe aviation is now, compared with 50 years ago. That was brought about by sensible and effective regulation, both in the manufacture of aircraft and engines and in the control of airspace. The same must apply to drones.

It is a pleasure to respond to this brief debate. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Stafford (Jeremy Lefroy) for bringing these matters to the House’s attention. He is right that they are salient. His concernment about drones is a result not of any amaritude, but of a fear of risk and an understanding that drones may not only pose problems but may have beneficial uses. I shall speak about both those things in a moment.

Before I start to do so, I want to deal with the intervention of the hon. Member for Birmingham, Northfield (Richard Burden). He is right that it is time that we did more. We looked at these matters closely and consulted—I shall speak about that in more detail in a moment. The Opposition have publicly made it clear a couple of times recently that they are happy to work with us in looking at what more can be done. I have spoken to them privately—I am happy to make that known—and I can confirm that that is very much our spirit too. As a Parliament, we want to act properly and reasonably swiftly to take action before any of the fears that I ascribed to my hon. Friend become realities. There is a seriousness about this and an intent to act. That is what I want to make clear to the Chamber, and the intervention of the hon. Member for Birmingham, Northfield gives me the opportunity to do so.

Let me deal rather more widely with the issue of drones. Of course, we are aware of the risks to safety, security and privacy. A misuse of this technology is wholly unacceptable, as my hon. Friend said. However, it is important to recognise that this is an emerging technology with potential benefits. There is a growing market as the technology offers the UK opportunities, and not just economic ones. The positive use of drones was well illustrated when, as many here know, the firefighters at Grenfell Tower used them after the incident to inspect the top floors, which had been deemed too unsafe to be inspected by any other means. The west midlands fire service has been using drones since 2007 for assessing sites and for wide-area searches. Drones can be used beneficially and safely, and they can increase effectiveness and efficiency.

Some airlines are using drones to conduct safety inspections of their planes in much less time, making the operations more efficient and leading to fewer delays on the tarmac for customers. Using pioneering technology that improves services and delivers economic benefits is a key element of the Government’s industrial strategy. Drones have the potential in many ways to transform the way in which businesses operate and interact with their consumers. They have a range of applications. We are working with industry to explore those uses, but my hon. Friend is right to say that that has to be done within a framework that guarantees safety and security.

The hon. Member for Stafford (Jeremy Lefroy) and I referred to the British Airline Pilots Association, which has asked for a protocol to be put in place. Has the Minister had the opportunity to speak to it and hear its ideas about how a protocol would work?

I hope to deal with that later, but if I do not, I am more than happy to get back to the hon. Gentleman. As this is a short debate, we will not necessarily have time to explore all aspects of the subject, and there some important matters I want to make absolutely clear.

The misuse of drones poses a significant challenge. We already have regulations that prohibit some of those misuses. Alongside those offences, we can prosecute operators for the negligent or malicious use of drones. My hon. Friend the Member for Stafford will be aware that it is an offence under the Air Navigation Order 2016 to endanger an aircraft. Those convicted can face a prison sentence of up to five years. The order applies to all aircraft, including drones, and stipulates that

“a person must not recklessly or negligently cause or permit an aircraft to endanger any person or property”.

Under article 94 of the order, the person in charge of a drone weighing under 20 kg must maintain direct, unaided visual contact with the aircraft to avoid collisions, and small drones should not be flown above 400 feet.

My hon. Friend asked whether we can do more. It is important to broadcast those measures as widely as possible. We have worked with the CAA to do that—I shall speak about that—but I accept that there is always more to do. I will look again at whether we need to go still further with those discussions and with the work that results from them and this debate. As you know, Sir Roger, I take the view that Westminster Hall debates must have a purpose beyond the Minister simply repeating what he has said already or affirming Government policy; they must help us move that policy on. I will happily look again at whether we can do still more.

In addition, the Secretary of State is able to make restriction-of-flying regulations as necessary. Flying restrictions already prohibit drones from being flown over high-risk areas, which are sensitive sites such as airports and so on. When incidents occur, drone users are for the most part clearly unaware of the rules, or recklessly breaking them. The point about awareness was made by my hon. Friend the Member for Stafford. We need to make people absolutely aware that if they behave in a way that is prohibited, they will be pursued, and that if they act recklessly, action must be taken. It is as simple as that.

We have taken action. We worked with the Civil Aviation Authority and the industry to launch safety advice via a new drone code and a consumer drone website. A Drone Assist app has also been created by NATS to educate users about local flying restrictions. However, as I have said, one can always do more, so I will take a look at that.

Does the Minister agree that knowing who the person is who is responsible for a drone is vital? That is the point I made about compulsory registration. There is a story—perhaps apocryphal, but perhaps not—that quite recently a drone was flown into the Shard, in London. People only found out who owned the drone when the owner went to retrieve it and asked for it back—which strikes me as quite an example of chutzpah. Does the Minister agree that registration and individual responsibility for drones is critical?

I have heard the point my hon. Friend makes very clearly, and if we are to consider further action, that will be one of the areas to look at closely and, as I said, urgently. The argument in favour of registration is advanced frequently, but it is none the worse for that. Certainly, I have heard what he said and we will take it into account.

The CAA launched a campaign to get large retailers such as Maplin and John Lewis to have drone code leaflets alongside drones sales. CAA research demonstrates how those efforts have been successful: awareness of the drone code has risen by 50% in the six months from August 2016 to February 2017.

The Government have also been working with drone manufacturers to ensure that airspace restrictions are adhered to. The software that implements such a restriction is known as geo-fencing, to which my hon. Friend made reference. Many of the leading drone manufacturers already include forms of geo-fencing capability in their drones. For example, DJI, the world’s leading drone manufacturer, builds geo-fencing into all of its drones. As a result, when someone tries to fly a DJI drone in a geo-fenced area, the drone either refuses to take off or, if already flying, refuses to enter a geo-fenced area and instead hovers in place.

My hon. Friend and I have had a private conversation on the subject—it is only fair to let the Chamber know that—which made clear to me that we both understand the significance and value of geo-fencing. It is a good example of the industry pioneering new technology safely. The Government are working with the industry to improve how geo-fencing can be made more secure and effective in future. Other wider security measures need to be considered, and we will discuss those with industry as well.

There is also a cross-Government counter-drones group, which has been undertaking a programme of work to improve our defences against drones with a focus on sensitive and important locations. Many trials and demonstrations have taken place to examine the applicability of various technological options to detect and counter the misuse of drones. Work is also being done by the Department for Transport in conjunction with UK airports and the Centre for the Protection of National Infrastructure on implementing operational mitigations against drones being launched near an airport. Furthermore, for those users who still seek to break the rules, we have acted to improve enforcement. We have delivered a memorandum of understanding agreed between the DFT, the CAA, the Home Office and the police with regards to the policing and monitoring of drones.

We heard earlier about the consultation, which took place up to March this year, as my hon. Friend the Member for Stafford and the hon. Member for Birmingham, Northfield mentioned. The consultation looked at three key areas: stimulating drone innovation and enterprise; ensuring safety and operation within the law; and laying the foundations for a developed drone market. It set out our firm intention to keep rules and regulations at pace with this emerging market and to ensure that actions to tackle misuse can be taken.

To be clear, the Government intend to introduce further measures once we have fully analysed the evidence presented in our consultation process. My hon. Friend asked, not unreasonably, when that would be. I have assured him previously, and do so now again publicly, that it will be very soon indeed. I have also committed to the Opposition that I will keep them fully informed of that. The approach they have taken on this is a good illustration of how Government and Opposition can work together. The hon. Member for Birmingham, Northfield has been pressing properly, as Oppositions should, for the Government to take action, and we will do so in the spirit that has been engendered by the conversations we have already enjoyed. Let us move together as a Parliament on this matter, which stretches beyond any party political divide.

It goes without saying that this is a matter of public safety, but it is also a matter of not inhibiting the beneficial use of drones. It is easy to say, “If we didn’t have any drones, everything would be fine,” but as I have already mentioned in the illustrations I have given and the examples I have offered, drones can be used productively, helpfully and safely. Nevertheless, the framework for the technology has to be in place. As with all technological change and innovation, it is a challenge for legal frameworks to keep pace with such highly dynamic circumstances.

During discussions on the Vehicle Technology and Aviation Bill in the last Parliament, the Minister said that he hoped to respond to the consultation and produce draft regulations in the summer. Are we still looking at that kind of timeframe?

For me, summer is an endless affair—my life is a constant summer, with a touch of spring and the warm glowing fires of winter—but frankly we need to act early this year, and given where we are, that means summer. The hon. Gentleman asks the question, perfectly reasonably, and I am happy to answer that I hope to be able to do something in the summer—if it can be done. I want to get it right, as I do not do not want to proceed on the basis of hastily doing something that we then regret, because this is a challenging and complex area for the very reasons of technological change that I mentioned, although they are not a reason to do nothing.

Will the Minister, who is indeed a summery person, undertake to publish the report on the impact of drones on aircraft during the extended summer to which he referred?

I have talked about the critical role of the CAA and about the existing restrictions around airports, so there are two points there: first, to ensure that the law is in the right place; and, secondly, to ensure that enforcement is adequate. As it is about both those things, airports in particular, but also other critical national infrastructure, will of course need to be taken into account in our consultation response and any further measures that we might consider.

Shakespeare said in “Henry V”:

“All things are ready if our minds be so”,

and our mind is ready to take further action. Tennyson, the great Lincolnshire poet, said:

“dream not that the hours will last”,

by which he meant that there is a time when we should act, and that we should not dream that it will go on forever. Notwithstanding my sunny disposition, my eternal summer, it is important that we act swiftly, proportionately and carefully, but without delay. That is the message that I take from this short debate.

In the near future, we will publish the consultation response—as I said, in the summer. I hope that will address some of the concerns expressed, but we will also consider further steps as necessary.

Question put and agreed to.

Sitting suspended.