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Drones: Risks to Passenger Aircraft

Volume 767: debated on Thursday 19 November 2015


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what plans they have to manage the risks posed to passenger aircraft by drones flown by private individuals.

My Lords, the Government are working with the CAA to develop a comprehensive education campaign on drone safety, and are talking to airports and the manufacturers and retailers of drones about the steps that can be taken to minimise the likelihood of negligent airspace incursions.

My Lords, I thank my noble friend the Minister for that reply. It seems to me to be pretty positive. Having flown around with my own pilot’s licence in the various spaces we have in the country, I see that they are already very overcrowded. Privately owned drones, if not strictly controlled shortly, are almost certain to bring some other disaster into our airspace.

My noble friend raises an important point about safety and that is why the Government have also undertaken to launch a specific public dialogue on the issue of the use of drones, particularly in the leisure area. We will also be consulting next year specifically on proposals for registration, licensing and tracking of drones. My noble friend is right to point out the increased number. If we compare 2014 to current-year statistics, we have seen possible incidents going up from 10 to 64, so with the increasing use of drones, the safety issue is very important.

My Lords, is the Minister aware that there have been near misses recently, and are the Government considering total exclusion zones for drones in the take-off and landing flight paths of major airports?

Again, I can say to the noble Lord that this is an important issue. It is on the Government’s radar—to use an aviation analogy—and, for example, Sussex Police is carrying out a specific pilot around Gatwick Airport, addressing the very points raised by the noble Lord.

My Lords, the Government’s response to the EU Committee’s report on drones referred to ongoing discussions on the wider use of geofencing. The Committee recommended that the Government should look at mandatory geofencing. Have they considered this and what conclusion have they come to?

The noble Baroness refers to a very positive debate we had in this House. As I have already outlined, the Government will be introducing a public dialogue very shortly on this issue, which will be across the country, including in Scotland and Wales. In addition, there will be a full public consultation in which the point she raises will also feature. We hope to conclude that public consultation by the middle to end of next year.

I do not share the view already expressed that the Minister’s response was positive. The Civil Aviation Authority is warning that drones being flown as high as 2,000 feet are putting passenger aircraft in danger. It has now issued safety guidelines known as the drone code to discourage hobbyists from using their equipment in areas where large aircraft are present. Frankly that seems a pretty tepid response if it reflects the Government’s approach. First, the potential dangers of drones to passenger aircraft have been known for a few years and, secondly, six incidents involving drones at or close to airports were reported between May 2014 and March this year. Do we have to wait for a major incident to occur before meaningful action is taken? How can the potential risk to passenger aircraft be said to have been addressed when there appears to be so little effective control over who can acquire and fly a drone, and where?

I look forward to the day when the noble Lord says I have made a positive remark from this Dispatch Box. That remains a personal ambition. I am sure that that is not the case, I say to the Opposition Chief Whip. The noble Lord is fully aware, I am sure, that the Air Navigation Order 2009 lays out specific measures for operators, covering issues of safety and security. Equally, as I have already said, it is right that we look at this evolving area, particularly over the fact that drones available for leisure activity are more widespread. The noble Lord talked about the negative response. The CAA has launched a particular campaign for small operators, which is entitled You Have Control: Be Safe, Be Legal, which the Government support. I have already alluded to the public dialogue and the consultation that I am sure will yield positive results.

My Lords, I will try again, since I have been on my feet once. Could my noble friend advise when a model aeroplane becomes a drone?

We would have various technical responses to that. If a model aeroplane is operated by a particular individual and controlled through a remote control device, it falls within the definition of a drone. As I said earlier, it is important, with the evolving nature of this industry—in particular the availability of small drone aircraft from your high street—that the Government consult widely on this.

My Lords, given the need to reduce the deficit, which has already been referred to this morning, would my noble friend care to suggest to the Chancellor that there might be a useful new tax base here?

I am sure that my noble friend speaks from great experience and my right honourable friend will have taken note of his helpful suggestion.

My Lords, is this not a worldwide—or at least a European—problem, because the Americans can pinpoint bombing in Syria by controlling a drone from somewhere in the States? Who are the CAA and the Government talking to outside the UK? Surely it is much more than a UK problem.

This should not be looked upon just as a problem. There are benefits to be had from the expansion of drones; for example, in agriculture and in parcel delivery. Also, with the tragic, sad events we saw over the weekend, there is an increasing need to look at drone technology when it comes to surveillance. In that regard we are looking at this not just nationally; as the noble Baroness, Lady Randerson, said, it is also being looked at across the EU and with our international partners.

Is my noble friend aware that you can buy these gadgets in the basement department of Selfridges? No doubt plenty will be given for Christmas. Surely the lesson from this is that we had better get on with proper controls PDQ.

My noble friend makes a very valid point. As I said, the leisure element of this particular expansion of drones is readily available. I am sure that many people will be getting Christmas presents from not just Selfridges but other stores that now host this—just to ensure that there is a level playing field here from the Government. The serious point is that this is an evolving area. We need to ensure that we consult widely and put the right measures in place.