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Volume 779: debated on Tuesday 28 February 2017


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what progress has been made in the last 12 months to address the challenges raised by the number of drones, particularly in relation to safety and security risks; and whether they intend to introduce legislation to regulate their use.

My Lords, a cross-government programme of work has made progress in a number of areas. This includes research to understand the risks to manned aviation; trials to explore options to detect and counter drones; meetings directly with manufacturers to improve technical solutions; and an expanded campaign to raise awareness of the safety rules. My noble friend will also be aware that, in December, a consultation on the safe use of drones in the UK was launched, which will inform the development of any future regulation.

My Lords, I am grateful for the depth of that Answer. Nevertheless, it is well over a year since I asked a Question on this subject. Is my noble friend aware that, in the subsequent period, the threat of terrorism has heightened and the misuse of drones has heightened? I asked whether we had looked at the laws passed in the United States and in Ireland, both of which have been successful. Are we sure now that we can get a grip on the manufacturers, and those who produce kit products, wherever they are sold, to produce strict laws that the consumer can understand and then can be enforced?

My noble friend raises an important point. We are all acutely aware of the growing challenges of terrorism to our country and the threat around the world. In this regard, I reassure my noble friend that the Government are fully aware and cognisant of the measures that have been taken, as he rightly listed, in places such as the US and Ireland. Our consultation, as I am sure he has seen from the detail, has been informed by their experience. That consultation closes in March and, at that point, we will look at what further regulations can be implemented.

My noble friend will also be aware that part of the challenge has been about informing the general public about the existing laws, which restrict and encourage the responsible use of drones. We are fully cognisant of the technology advancements in this area, so it is important that before legislating we look at what is happening elsewhere—but also at the consultation results as well.

I believe that the Government’s consultation document is 58 pages long. It covers a wide range of issues relating to drones and is not just about safety and security. We cannot wait months while the Government consider their response to all the many questions posed in the consultation document about drones before decisions are made on what changes are needed to the safety and security laws and procedures. Will the Government give a clear and unambiguous assurance today that the issue of safety and security and the responses received on the issue will be treated as the number one priority for conclusions to be reached, and that decisions will be announced following the conclusion of the consultation in the middle of this month—and dealing with the safety and security issue will not have to wait until the Government have reached their conclusions and made their decisions on all the other issues relating to drones raised in the consultation document?

My Lords, just to correct the noble Lord, I am sure that he meant “next month”. I was just checking dates—and I know that there was a late ending yesterday. Towards the middle of March we will, as I said, be concluding the consultation. He has asked me before about timelines; we are looking to produce our consultation results, including the important areas that he mentioned—and yes, the Government have prioritised those areas. The consultation looks comprehensively at those issues and the positive use of drones, and we will look to produce our conclusions from that consultation in the summer of this year.

My Lords, the Minister will know that I was one of the first to draw attention to the risk of collisions between drones and airliners. Do the Government have at least a contingency plan for total exclusion zones for drones around the incoming and outgoing flight paths of major airports?

The noble Lord raises an important point about safety around airports. We are looking much more extensively at the issues of geo-fencing around critical sites such as airports. Nevertheless, as I am sure the noble Lord is aware, there were 70 reported incidents in 2016 and that was 70 too many. It is important that, as technology advances, we look at more rapid and rigid enforcement of geo-fencing.

My Lords, there were indeed 70 incidents, 25 of which were at Heathrow. The Vehicle Technology and Aviation Bill has just been introduced in the House of Commons. This seems the perfect place to add legislation and rules in this area. At the moment the Bill includes lasers, but it does not include drones. Will the Minister undertake that, when the Bill comes to this House, the Government will put forward suitable amendments to include drones?

Of course we will have a discussion about the important issue of lasers. The noble Lord is quite right to point out that that is included in the Bill that he mentioned. I am not going to prejudge what conclusions are reached in the other place—or indeed in this place—regarding what legislative vehicle will be used for the purposes of drones. It is important that we look at the full review of the consultation taking place in the middle of next month and then consider its results in the summer of this year.

My Lords, the Government may be cognisant of all the drone problems, but are the prison authorities cognisant of them? Are the reports that a lot of drugs are delivered into Her Majesty’s prisons by drones not correct? Surely steps should be taken to stop that before anything else.

My noble friend is right to raise this important issue. Let me assure him that new laws have been implemented and measures taken to deal with the problem of the delivery of drugs into prisons. Equally, let me reassure my noble friend that I am talking to Ministers across both the Home Office and the Ministry of Justice. We will be convening a meeting with manufacturers, either next month or in April, to talk directly about the importance of ensuring that all safety and security aspects are covered.

My Lords, the Minister will recall a debate before Christmas in which his attention was drawn to the availability of drone-jamming signal equipment which could be used to an operational distance of 2,000 feet. It would be avoided by drone users because they would be likely to lose their drones. Why cannot we order and use this equipment to cover our airports?

The noble Lord is right: he pointed out that specific issue, which I have taken up directly with officials. I would ask him also to take part in the consultation. We will be raising his specific point directly with manufacturers.

My Lords, I declare an interest as president of the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association and the holder of a current commercial pilot’s licence. I flew myself down here—safely—today. There is an answer in relation to controlled airspace around Heathrow and Gatwick. When nobody can go into controlled airspace without authority, surely a quick answer is to prohibit any drones in that area?

The noble Lord obviously speaks from experience in this area. He will be aware that the CAA has a specific regime around the commercial operation of drones. We are looking at these particular regulations to see how they may be extended. As I said, we have a wide-ranging consultation and we wish to wait for the results of that.