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Volume 795: debated on Tuesday 22 January 2019


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what progress they have made towards introducing new regulations on the use of drones.

My Lords, the Department for Transport introduced legislation last year which made flying a drone above 400 feet or within 1 kilometre of an airport boundary an offence. We also introduced regulations for compulsory registration and testing for drone users, which come into effect in November. Earlier this month, we announced measures to extend the airport flying ban to include aerodrome traffic zones and additional 5 kilometre extensions from the ends of runways. We also announced new police powers to tackle drone misuse, including the ability to issue on-the-spot fines.

Can the Minister explain why compulsory registration of drones has to wait until November? Why can it not happen now? The Gatwick incident demonstrated that no one really knows who is in charge. Is it the Department for Transport, the Home Office or the MoD; is it the police, the Army, the CAA or the airport itself? That is one reason why it took so long to deal with. Whose responsibility will it be the next time it happens?

On the timing of the registration system, since we put the requirement into law last May, the CAA has been working to develop and build an online registration and testing system. It is of course important that we get the IT system right: we expect thousands of people to use it and we want it to be easy to use and future proof, as we expect rapid growth in the sector.

It is fair to say that many lessons were learned from the Gatwick incident. The police at the airport initially led the response, but I can certainly assure the noble Baroness that across the Ministry of Defence, the Home Office and the Department for Transport, we will continue to ensure that we react rapidly to future incidents.

My Lords, the lessons are always learned after incidents of this nature. In previous answers, the Minister told us that the Department for Transport was not happy that any of the technological solutions were necessarily perfect. Is the perfect not the enemy of the good? Today, we were told by easyJet that the disruption at Gatwick cost it £15 million. Other airlines and the airport operators will have had similar costs, and of course, the public and business faced costs too. What estimate has the department made of the costs associated with these slightly less-than-perfect technological solutions? What would it cost to equip a single airport with that technology, compared with the losses incurred?

My Lords, advancing counter-drone technology is a complex challenge, and I think it fair to say that there is currently no silver bullet in that regard. A number of products are available; when taken together, they can mitigate against a drone. We are working closely with airports to ensure that they have the appropriate measures in place. We also continue to test and evaluate the safe use of a range of counter-drone technologies, and we are looking at future options. This crucial technology will detect drones flying around sensitive areas, airports and other parts of critical national infrastructure. The noble Lord rightly highlighted the economic cost involved; he can rest assured that we are doing everything we can to protect against future drone incursions.

My Lords, I draw attention once again to the Lords EU Committee’s report, which was published in 2017 and subsequently debated in your Lordships’ House. How many of the recommendations made in that report have been followed through by the department?

I thank my noble friend for highlighting that excellent report. We have taken forward a number of measures and continue to do so. We are working closely with the European Aviation Safety Agency, and have been for some time, on a comprehensive set of regulations for unmanned aircraft. That will put in place a new framework for regulations and mandate the product standards for drones, such as geo-fencing and electronic conspicuity.

My Lords, does the Minister believe that the measures debated in the recent consultation are sufficient to address incidents such as the one that occurred at Gatwick this winter? Specifically, does she intend to include measures in the draft Bill to clarify who should have the authority to disrupt or destroy a drone?

My Lords, as I said, the challenge is complex and we need to bring many different things into force. We have already brought in measures to make illegal the flying of drones such as we saw at Gatwick. New police powers on that will be included in the draft Bill. As I said, the Home Office continues to test and evaluate the use of counter-drone technology. That has safety implications, of course, so we need to be sure that we get it right.

My Lords, is my noble friend aware that, as the noble Lord, Lord Harris, said, easyJet announced this morning that the drone fiasco at Gatwick cost it £15 million and disrupted 82,000 easyJet passengers, let alone anybody else? Is she also aware of easyJet’s announcement that it is confident that it has plans in place to deal with even a no-deal Brexit, and that it will fly more passengers next summer than it did last summer? Does my noble friend agree that Brexit is likely to cause less disruption—

Listen. Does my noble friend agree that Brexit is likely to cause less disruption than one non-existent drone, and that the only things falling out of the skies are the predictions of those who prefer to embrace anxiety rather than rational analysis?

My Lords, I should take this opportunity to thank the staff of easyJet, at Gatwick and everybody else who was involved in the significant disruption, which affected more than 100,000 passengers. As my noble friend would expect, we are working closely with easyJet and everybody in the aviation sector on Brexit. As easyJet said, it is confident that flights will continue, and we share that confidence.

I sat through the debate on the drones Bill, although I did not take part, and it was evident throughout it that the Government were thoroughly complacent. They brushed away many of the pleas from people in the armed services and people experienced in civil aviation. Will the Minister confirm that the Government are taking this matter really seriously and, instead of taking the libertarian view that drones can go anywhere, realise how dangerous they are?

My Lords, I can certainly reassure the noble Lord that we are taking this incredibly seriously and have been for some time. As noble Lords can imagine, following the Gatwick incursion—the first time globally that we saw such activity—we continue to take it very seriously. Drones are not allowed to fly just anywhere; we had already brought in laws on that last year, and we plan to extend them. We are also bringing in registration and competency tests, introducing powers to help police investigate and issue fixed-penalty notices, working on a counter-drone point, introducing geo-fencing and electronic conspicuity, and working closely on the communications campaign to ensure that all people who fly drones—the vast majority do so safely and responsibly—are fully aware of the law.