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Drones: Consultation

Volume 795: debated on Tuesday 29 January 2019


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what consultations they are conducting on the operation of drones in United Kingdom airspace; and whether they will include the British Airline Pilots Association and the Guild of Air Traffic Controllers as members of draft Airspace Modernisation Strategy committees.

My Lords, I beg leave to ask the Question standing in my name on the Order Paper and draw attention to my interests as listed in the register.

My Lords, the Government have a wide range of engagement with industry on the operation of drones in UK airspace, and the government response to the latest formal consultation was published on 7 January. The Department for Transport will continue to work with the British Airline Pilots Association and the Guild of Air Traffic Control Officers, airports, drone manufacturers and other key stakeholders on all issues relating to the operation of drones in UK airspace, including airspace modernisation.

I thank the Minister for her reply. I refer, in particular, to the airspace modernisation strategy committee and point out that a very good reason for including BALPA and GATCO on it is that they have first-hand practical experience of the complex operations of both flying through airspace and regulating it. They will have a lot to offer when this new strategy is developed.

I thank my noble friend for the work he does in his role as president of BALPA and his highlighting of aviation issues both inside and outside the Chamber. It has not been possible to offer every stakeholder a seat on the airspace strategy board, but the DfT and CAA are working with GATCO and BALPA to ensure they have the appropriate representation in the governance structure. Given their expertise and, as my noble friend points out, their practical experience, we really value BALPA and GATCO’s ongoing input and we will continue to work with them to consider what sub-committees they should sit on as part of the new airspace modernisation programme.

My Lords, Gatwick and Heathrow are now purchasing equipment to combat drones, but it is very expensive. Does the Minister believe that all airports have to equip themselves with this expensive equipment? This could be beyond the financial capacity of some small airports, but a small airport being interrupted by a drone could be just as dangerous. Precisely how are the Government working with airports across Britain to ensure a rapid response to another drone attack?

My Lords, the noble Baroness makes a very important point. Of course, we need to ensure that all our airports are protected, but there is a degree of proportionality to that. I met with airports recently and will continue to work with them on ensuring that they have the best capability possible. Also, the Centre for the Protection of National Infrastructure is working on standards for counter-drone technology and offers advice to organisations, including airports, on the availability of current technology.

My Lords, as my noble friend will know, I am chairing an all-party parliamentary inquiry into lower airspace in the United Kingdom. Apart from the guild of air pilots and other interested organisations, is she consulting or likely to consult with the responsible advocates of drone flying—those who want to abide by regulations and controls? To what extent is she in touch with those people as well as other stakeholders?

My Lords, of course it is very important that we take the needs of general aviation users into consideration, as well as drone flyers. As my noble friend points out, the vast majority of drone users behave safely and responsibly. We will continue to work with them as airspace modernisation and drones develop.

My Lords, the Minister used the word “proportionality” today, and in a previous answer. Could she explain the principle of proportionality between a drone closing Gatwick for two days and people being allowed to do what they like with them elsewhere? It is a bit of a challenge, is it not?

The noble Lord is quite right; it is a challenge. We have brought in laws governing the use of drones within airport exclusion zones and across the country. It is against the law to fly your drone above 400 feet, but the noble Lord is right to point out that this is a complex issue.

My Lords, when are these committees hoping to report? Will they do so to her department or to Parliament as a whole?

The airspace modernisation programme is under way and the process will take a number of years. We have not modernised our airspace for over 50 years, and doing so will bring a lot of benefits to the users of our airspace and the communities living around airports. We will ensure that the House is kept updated as plans develop.

My Lords, given the disruption at Gatwick and Heathrow, can we be clear about who is authorised to destroy a drone? Will those authorisations be extended in forthcoming legislation, and who is likely to be authorised under future legislation?

My Lords, the police have the power in certain circumstances to access and use equipment to take drones out of the sky. That, of course, will be subject to police weighing up the risk to the public and of wider collateral damage against the scale of the offence being committed. The Home Office is leading a cross-Whitehall effort to improve the police’s ability to tackle drones quickly and effectively.

Can my noble friend confirm whether all commercial airports now have a 5-kilometre limit for flying drones? If that limit is not in force, why can it not be brought forward in emergency legislation? Otherwise, thousands of passengers will be at real risk.

My Lords, we announced earlier this month that we will extend the airport restriction zone to the air traffic zone, and 5 kilometres each side of the runway. That is not in force at the moment but we are working on statutory instruments to amend the air navigation order, and that will be completed very shortly.