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Unmanned Aerial Vehicles

Volume 756: debated on Thursday 6 November 2014


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government whether they have any plans to introduce tighter rules governing larger unmanned aerial vehicles and also to introduce legislation to enhance security measures against such aircraft at ground level.

My Lords, as with all aircraft, larger remotely piloted aircraft systems will be permitted to operate in UK airspace only if it is considered that it is safe for them to do so. The Government are working closely with our European partners to put in place the necessary legal and regulatory framework to enable the full and safe integration of remotely piloted aircraft into the total aviation system, and thus share the same airspace as manned aviation.

I declare my interest as the life president of BALPA. What discussions have taken place between the Government and the pilots’ union about the expansion of drone use? Have not BALPA and others expressed serious concerns about the adequacy of plans to ensure security, especially when drones are on the ground and also when they might be in the hands of terrorists? Will the Government address the anxieties before long?

My Lords, of course the Government will address them. The same argument always comes out when a new form of transport is developed—as it did with trains, cars and aeroplanes. It comes down to two questions. First, do the benefits of the new industry, economic and otherwise, outweigh the possible negatives as regards safety, security and privacy? Secondly, are we confident that we are regulating enough to ensure safety but not regulating too much so that we harm the new industry, which is very lucrative?

My Lords, as the noble Lord, Lord Clinton-Davis, knows, the European Union Select Committee is currently doing a study on the situation as regards drones. Only yesterday and the day before we took evidence on this in Brussels from various people; and we have already taken evidence from the CAA and BALPA. The noble Lord is right to say that the situation is fast developing. I am sorry—I am not asking a question on that, I just want to put this in context. What is being done at the moment is to safeguard Britain’s position on safety regulation and pilot involvement, and I think that it is slightly too early to make any statement.

I agree with my noble friend and pay tribute to the good work she does in chairing that important committee. I believe that its report is due in January. Once we get that report—which will address things such as safety, control, security, insurance and so—we should be able to analyse and establish what further regulation or control we need to bring in to make this industry safer.

My Lords, I would hate to suggest for one minute that the United States is in any way more technologically advanced than your Lordships’ Chamber, but both the Supreme Court and the CAA have been wrestling with these challenges. Can I draw the Minister’s attention to Nevada, where they have done some dramatic deregulation of drones, but also to the most recent and first case ever to be brought to the courts on the use of drones in the US? May I also suggest that the ambiguity and complexity of the challenges facing the US could give enormous lessons to us and allow us to become a world leader in our use of regulation?

I agree with the noble Baroness. We are at the forefront of this technology and are probably number one in the world. However, we need to make sure that we do not kill the industry by bringing in too much legislation. It is important that this technology makes a good contribution to our GDP and there is long-term potential for trading in it. I am sure that, given time, it will continue to thrive.

In response to a Question in this House, the Government stated that unmanned aircraft were closely regulated by the Civil Aviation Authority but that more needed to be done to make the rules clear. How many non-military unmanned aerial vehicles are there which can be flown legally in our airspace, and which key rules or regulations relating to unmanned aerial vehicles do the Government consider are not clear or understood?

My Lords, I do not have the figures on those unmanned aircraft, but what is important is that we treat them exactly the same as manned aircraft, and they are closely monitored by the Civil Aviation Authority. With regard to small unmanned aircraft, there is a lesser extent of monitoring, which is what we are looking at very closely through our European Union Committee. We hope that we will have an outcome in January so that we can see what action we need to take to ensure the safety and security of unmanned aircraft.

My Lords, the privately owned West Wales Airport in Aberporth, Ceredigion, has been involved in the development and testing of UAVs since their origins in the Cold War years. However, as the use of UAVs increases in the future, what plans do the Government have to ensure that further facilities exist to contribute to safe and reliable operations?

My Lords, with any new mode of transport we look very carefully at safety. I am satisfied that sufficient legislation is in place to deal with the use of unmanned aircraft in criminal activity. I am also assured by the department that UK industry is developing technology to prevent the use of any equipment that is not safe or that could be used for purposes that could be criminal. However, we expect those who use these to be responsible and reasonable people.

My Lords, the convention on conventional weapons committee of the UN meets in Geneva next week. Are the Government now, at long last, going to produce a clear policy statement on lethal autonomous weapons systems, which are types of UAVs, and a definition of the meaningful human involvement in the firing chain?

My Lords, as I said earlier, we have got to wait for the report that is due in January. We hope that we will have some meaningful information so that we can decide what action to take on this.

My Lords, the Minister will have noticed that the French arrested three people in connection with the drones flying over their nuclear plants. Have we had similar instances, and what are our regulations with respect to these very small drones?

My Lords, we have Air Navigation Order 2009, which prevents a person,

“causing or permitting an aircraft to endanger the safety of any person or property”,

and prohibits the flying of small unmanned aircraft closer than 150 metres to built-up areas.