Skip to main content


Volume 768: debated on Tuesday 19 January 2016


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what action they propose to address the threat of a drone being flown into a commercial jet or being used to launch a terrorist attack, as highlighted in the recent report of Detective Chief Inspector Colin Smith.

The Government recognise that this emerging technology creates exciting opportunities for the UK economy, but also new risks for security and safety. A cross-government working group is undertaking a detailed analysis of this emerging threat, including the risks of the use of drones for terrorism and criminal purposes. This work is ongoing and kept under constant review. Initial guidance on tackling the risks has been provided to constabularies across the UK.

As my noble friend will realise, as a former RAF pilot I have looked at what is happening around the world. All the leading countries—the USA, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, France and even Ireland—now have restrictions on drones. We can add to that that drones in a world of cyberwarfare make problems even more relatively difficult. In the light of the Hostile Drones report, which makes chilling reading, will my noble friend confirm that the Government will act with real urgency, perhaps guided by the latest US registration scheme launched in January and Ireland’s—dare I mention it?—SI 563 of 2015?

My Lords, I am aware of the Hostile Drones report. It is informative and generally well written, and chimes very much with the work being undertaken by the cross-government working group. As for licensing, which my noble friend mentioned, particularly in the US and Ireland, the Government and the CAA are talking to the US Federal Aviation Administration and the Irish Aviation Authority about both schemes. I would, however, add a caveat that such schemes are only as good as the enforcement mechanisms behind them.

My Lords, it was interesting that the Minister said that this is an exciting project. It certainly is an exciting project to keep under review while drones might get into the suction of an air engine when a plane lands at Heathrow. It is nice to know that it is under review, but what can the Government do about catching these drones, short of firing missiles at them?

Indeed. This is an important issue because the technology is growing at such a pace. We are undertaking a review of how drones will be controlled from a safety perspective, while looking at the opportunities at the same time.

My Lords, will the cross-government working group also consider the capacity of drones to infringe people’s privacy by photographing them in their houses, their gardens or wherever they may be? What enforcement mechanisms might be envisaged there?

Again, that will be part of the review. When we talk about infringement of personal space, as a matter of good practice, drone operators that process personal data should inform individuals affected of their identity. Operators of drones that collect personal data must comply with the Data Protection Act, unless a relevant exemption applies. We believe that the law is tight in this respect.

My Lords, Colin Smith asserts that there are almost weekly incidents that endanger air passengers because drones fly into the path of aeroplanes, whether deliberately or by accident. What assessment have the Government made of this risk? Do they believe that we now urgently need to update the licensing and training processes relating to drones?

We are aware of the advance of the technology. The Government are looking urgently at the issues involved. It would be a mistake to rush into legislation at this stage, but it is important to look at all the facts. We are due to report at the end of September on the consultation in this respect.

My Lords, why has there been such a delay in getting this consultation together? There was terrific euphoria when the report was first published in March last year and the Government gave a very positive response to it within 13 days. What has happened between then and now? [Laughter.] It is not a laughing situation. The tracking and tracing of drones is so important and we have to get on with it. The consultation will be 12 months later than we thought.

First of all, I salute the work of my noble friend Lady O’Cathain and all other members of EU Sub-Committee B. It is true that the Government responded quickly within 13 days and it is an important subject. However, it is wrong to rush into legislation, and it is right not only to understand what the public think about the operations of drones but to undertake this full 12-week consultation. The Government are also publishing their own strategy in September, notwithstanding any EU timetable.

My Lords, the Minister says that this will come up in due course, or towards the end of the year, but we initially raised the issue of drones way back when we were preparing for the Olympics. There was great difficulty getting a cross-party group set up. Two years ago we were warning of the real risks from terrorism for aircraft. We really must move on this now. There are now highly capable drones that can carry a substantial weight, which you can buy for £2,000 from a supermarket. You can buy whole groups of these. They can also do intelligence-gathering. This is a very real risk and we need to move on it. Would the Minister not admit that we must really make something happen as soon as possible this year?

Indeed, I think I have outlined exactly what we are doing. It is important that we look at the facts first and then come back with a full report by September, which is not too far away. However, we are not being complacent about the safety issues and the risks concerned.

My Lords, should we not require that any person should have a licence before he may be permitted to buy or operate a drone?

Yes, it is something that is on people’s minds. Of course, the US and Ireland are operating such a scheme but, as I said at the beginning, the question is: can this be enforced? This will also be part of the important review that we will carry out this year.

My Lords, does the noble Viscount know that this is the third time for me to raise this subject, and that I have had encouragement from the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents? Will the Government ensure that there are total exclusion zones for drones wherever aircraft are taxiing, taking off or landing?

Yes, and, indeed, the police are very much involved in this. There is a trial being undertaken at the moment around Gatwick Airport. The police are very much part of this, undertaking trials to work out how drones can best be used around public areas.