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Unmanned Aerial Vehicles

Volume 756: debated on Wednesday 5 November 2014


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what plans they have to encourage the development by British companies of unmanned aerial vehicles for civil and commercial purposes.

I beg leave to ask the Question standing in my name on the Order Paper. In doing so, I declare a shareholding in Concurrent Technologies plc, 6% of whose turnover goes into electronics for unmanned vehicles.

We are focusing investment on regulation and technology that will put the UK supply chain in a good position to be successful in the global market for unmanned aircraft. For example, through Innovate UK, we are investing £10.3 million in developing technology and supporting UK business to research the safe integration of these aircraft into our airspace.

My Lords, the burgeoning technology of UAVs has a vast range of global applications in archaeology, agriculture, communications, exploration, firefighting, surveillance of pipelines and piracy, and indeed in many forms of delivery systems. It may even be possible to develop a delivery system for Focus leaflets, which I should have thought would be very much appreciated by these Benches. Paul Cremin, the head of aviation safety at the Department for Transport, said recently:

“I hear of a new one—

civilian application—

“almost every day”.

He said that it will lead to a revolution in the way we shop, observe and are observed. Is my noble friend satisfied that UK plc—the Government and the private sector—is sufficiently focused on the huge commercial opportunities for UAV systems, an area where we seem to be well behind the Israelis and the Americans?

My Lords, all that we are doing will help the UK to be at the forefront of this emerging sector and I very much like the examples that my noble friend has given. We are already investing £1 billion, matched by industry, in the Aerospace Technology Institute. Its latest £25 million competition is open to projects from a range of civil aerospace technologies, including the unmanned aircraft sector.

My Lords, do the Minister and the Government fully accept that there is much use for unmanned vehicles in policing? Will she discuss with the various police authorities the possibility of them working together to provide some cover to give constant monitoring of sensitive sites in the fight against terrorism and in other issues such as emergencies? There is a tremendous opportunity for using drones. I trust that the Government are pursuing this and will encourage the police to work together on it.

My Lords, I very much agree with the noble Lord that there is great potential in this area. For example, police searches for missing people can be helped enormously by this sort of technology. We are working with the police, the defence sector and with industry to take forward this important technology.

My Lords, I welcome the opportunities that are afforded by unmanned aerial vehicles and acknowledge that my noble friend referred to the regulatory regimes that are going to be necessary to ensure that this can be managed safely. Will she bear in mind that both United Kingdom and European airspace is crowded, both at the lower and the higher levels, and it will require very careful design and enforcement not only by the European Aviation Safety Agency but also by our own Civil Aviation Authority to ensure that these vehicles are safely used and monitored.

My Lords, yes. I take great comfort from the fact that unmanned aircraft are closely regulated by the Civil Aviation Authority and are treated in the same manner as equivalent manned aircraft. As with all other aircraft, they need to be safe to be flown and flown safely—an important principle. We recognise, of course, that more needs to be done to make the rules clear, particularly for small, unmanned aircraft, and to help address this the CAA is launching a publicity campaign, “You Have Control, Be Safe, Be Legal”.

My Lords, the House will be delighted by the progress that is being made by the industry, but the question of regulation goes far beyond just airspace. There is a question about privacy, the safety of the individual and the extent to which drones, which can be purchased at present for quite small sums of money—under £1,000—have wonderful technology for activities that many of us might find completely reprehensible.

My Lords, I agree that operators of unmanned aircraft must comply with privacy laws, which have significant penalties. Of course, in the wrong hands, these things can be damaging. We are working continuously, as is the CAA, to assess threats and make sure that we do not have the problems described. Obviously, government policy on some of this cannot be divulged, but privacy and taking great care in relation to terrorists and so on are very much on the mind of those developing this important technology.

Does the Minister agree that if privacy as well as security is to be maintained it is essential that any unmanned aircraft or drone has an identifier so that people can know whose drone it is and have a comeback?

My Lords, all of these unmanned aircraft are subject to the air navigation order and appropriate rules are in place.