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Drones: Consultation Response

Volume 794: debated on Monday 7 January 2019


My Lords, with the leave of the House, I shall now repeat a Statement made in the other place by my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Transport. The Statement is as follows:

“With permission, Mr Speaker, I would like to make a Statement about the further action the Government are taking on drones. The disruption caused by drones to flights at Gatwick Airport last month was deliberate, irresponsible and calculated. It meant days of chaos and uncertainty for over 100,000 passengers at Christmas, one of the busiest times of the year. Carefully planned holidays were ruined and long-expected reunions between friends and relatives missed. Families were forced to spend hours at an airport not knowing if or when they would reach their destinations.

Sussex Police is leading the investigation into this criminal activity. I am clear that, when caught, those responsible should face the maximum possible custodial sentence for this hugely irresponsible and criminal act. I want to assure the House that my department is working extremely closely with airports, the Home Office, the Ministry of Defence, the CAA and the police to make sure that our national airports are fully prepared to manage any similar incident in the future. I spoke personally to the heads of the major UK airports before Christmas, and later this week the Aviation Minister, Baroness Sugg, will meet with them again for an update on progress. In the meantime, the Ministry of Defence remains on standby to deal with any further problems at Gatwick and other airports if required.

But this incident was also a stark example of why we must continue to ensure that drones are used safely and securely in the UK. Today I am publishing the outcome of our recent consultation Taking Flight: The Future of Drones in the UK. We received over 5,000 responses to this consultation, reflecting a broad range of views. The responses underlined the importance of balancing the UK’s world-leading position in aviation safety and security with supporting the development of this emerging industry.

I am clear the Government are taking action to ensure that passengers have confidence that their journeys will not be disrupted by drones, that aircraft can safely use our key transport hubs and that criminals misusing drones can be brought to justice. The UK is where technology companies want to build their businesses, invest in innovation and use science and engineering to bring immense benefits to this country. Drones are at the forefront of these technological advances and are already being used in the UK to great effect. Our emergency search and rescue services use drones on a regular basis. Drones can also reduce risks for workers in hazardous sectors such as the oil and gas industry. This technology is also driving more efficient ways of working in many other sectors, from delivering medicines to assisting with building work.

However, the Gatwick incident has reinforced the fact that it is crucial that our regulatory and enforcement regime keeps pace with rapid technological change. We have taken some big steps towards building a regulatory system for this new sector. It is already an offence to endanger aircraft. Drones must not be flown near people or property and have to be kept within visual line of sight. Commercial users are able to operate drones outside of these rules but only when granted Civil Aviation Authority permission after meeting strict safety conditions.

Education is also vital to ensure that everyone understands the rules about drone use. This is why the CAA has been running its long-standing Dronesafe campaign and Drone Code guide—work that is helping to highlight these rules to the public.

On 30 July last year, we introduced new measures that barred drones from flying above 400 feet and within one kilometre of protected airport boundaries. In addition, we have also introduced legislation that will mean that from November all drone operators must register and drone pilots complete a competency test. However, we intend to go further. Today’s measures set out the next steps needed to ensure that drones are used in a way that is safe and secure and the industry is accountable. At the same time, these steps will ensure that we harness the benefits which drones can bring to the UK economy.

A common theme in the consultation responses was the importance of the enforcement of safety regulations. The Government share this view. The vast majority of drone users fly safely and responsibly, but we must ensure that the police have the right powers to deal with illegal use. We will therefore be introducing new police powers. These include allowing the police to request evidence from drone users where there is reasonable suspicion of an offence being committed as well as enabling the police to issue fixed penalty notices for minor drone offences. These new powers will help to ensure effective enforcement of the rules. They will provide an immediate deterrent to those who may misuse drones or attempt to break the law. My department has been working closely with Home Office colleagues on the legislative clauses which will deliver these changes.

It is of course crucial that our national infrastructure, including airports and other sites such as prisons and energy plants, can be adequately protected to prevent incidents such as that at Gatwick. We must ensure that the most up-to-date technology is available to detect, track and potentially disrupt drones that are being used illegally, so we have consulted on the further use of counter-drone technology. The consultation responses will now be used by the Home Office to develop an appropriate means of using this technology in the UK.

Of course, aviation and passenger safety is at the heart of everything we do, and while airlines and airports welcomed our recent airport drone restriction measures, they also asked for the current airport rules to be amended to better protect the landing and take-off paths of aircraft. We have been listening to these concerns and we have been working with the CAA and NATS to develop the optimum exclusion zone that will help to meet those requirements.

It is important to stress that any restriction zone would not have prevented a deliberate incident such as that at Gatwick. However, it is right that proportionate measures are in place at airports to protect aircraft and avoid potential conflict with legitimate drone activity. We will therefore introduce additional protections around airports, with a particular focus on protected exclusion zones from runway ends, alongside increasing the current aerodrome traffic zone restrictions around airports. Drone pilots wishing to fly within these zones must only do so with permission from the aerodrome air traffic control. The Department for Transport will amend the Air Navigation Order 2016 to implement these changes.

There is no question but that lessons must be learned from last month’s incident at Gatwick. Passengers must be able to travel without the fear of their trips being disrupted by malicious drone use. Airports must be prepared to deal with incidents of this type, while police need the proper powers to deal with drone offences. Britain must be ready to harness the vast opportunities and benefits that the safe use of drones can bring. The measures I have announced today are a major step on that journey. I commend this Statement to the House.”

My Lords, I thank the Minister for her repetition of the Statement. I see it promises further action but unfortunately when I look at the detail I see no clear action specified, except the five-kilometre rule. It seems to me it merely says that there will be more meetings and discussions; there is no specific action in the Statement.

Does the Minister accept that the Secretary of State has a personal responsibility for the safety of operations, particularly at Gatwick, Heathrow and the other major airports? The whole concept of a good safety environment is where one individual can be held personally responsible. In the case of aviation, we have several safety systems but, at the end of the day, somebody has to be responsible. Is it her view that the Secretary of State has this personal responsibility? Does he also have a personal responsibility to the many passengers disrupted because of this incident? I believe that in excess of 100,000 passengers had their travel disrupted by this event.

The present regulations in relation to 400 feet and one kilometre are pathetic. When I was both a private and a professional pilot, if I got within one, five, 10, perhaps even 15 kilometres of Heathrow or Gatwick without direct permission to do so, I would have been prosecuted, paid a hefty fine and had my licence removed. The idea that a kilometre is of any value is absurd, and there has to be a serious question mark over five kilometres.

I note that the Statement acknowledges the wider challenge with prisons and infrastructure, and I am pleased that account will be taken of that—but we have known about this risk for many years. I believe there was an incident at Gatwick as far ago as July 2017 and BALPA, the pilots’ union, has been pointing out the potential hazards of drones for a number of years. Why was there not a plan? Why was there not legislation? The noble Baroness and I spent many happy hours together at the beginning of 2018. We did space; we did ATOL; we did vehicle technology; we did lasers. There was every opportunity to squirrel some legislation on drones into those Bills, and indeed I made an informal offer to her predecessor that we would co-operate if the Government had something to bring forward. Some basic legislation could have been introduced.

Is it the DfT’s view that Gatwick Airport Ltd met its responsibilities? Does it not have a general responsibility for the safety of its passengers? Does it not have a general responsibility to plan in some depth for when things go wrong?

For part of my career, I was responsible for the passengers on the London Underground. We would respond to any risk by making plans immediately to see how we could mitigate those risks and then we would develop those plans. The mitigation, where practical, would be introduced straightaway. Indeed, in the early 1990s we developed plans to evacuate the Underground very quickly. When in 1992 we found incendiaries on trains, we were able to get the people out within something like 10 minutes. I have to admit that we did not have a plan to then restart the Underground, and it was not a good day for our passengers—but at least they were alive and well. Does the Secretary of State accept that he should have had in place, or caused to be in place, a plan? Does he accept that, if a plan does not exist, it should now?

I assume that the new powers will increase police activity and responsibility. Will there be sufficient police resources to make this practical?

The issue of drones has been with us for years, and in my view it has been handled chaotically. This is symptomatic of the whole of HMG at the moment. When will this Government get a grip?

My Lords, at last we have some sort of response from the Government on the issue of drones, which, as the noble Lord emphasised, we have discussed repeatedly and urged the Government to take action on. The only positive thing that can be said about the Gatwick incident is that it involved massive economic and personal disruption but not death or injury, which it could have.

There are now millions rather than thousands of drones in the UK. The Gatwick incident ruined travel plans for 140,000 people. In 2017, there were 93 near misses between drones and planes, and 3,500 incidents involving drones were reported to the police, concerning people’s safety and their privacy. These are large figures: this is not a marginal activity. It paints a picture of a big problem, but the Government have been horribly complacent and have dithered and delayed. The consultation that the Minister referred to finished in September, but we have the response only now and—if I dare suggest it—had we not had the Gatwick incident, I do not think it would have come out now.

I understand that action was deferred because of the pressures of Brexit, but the Government have allowed themselves to be distracted from a very important issue. The new regulations that were introduced last year proved in the Gatwick incident to be inadequate, ineffective and unenforceable. The police clearly did not have the right equipment, and I suggest that the dramatic tension of the Gatwick incident turned to farce when the police suggested they were not even sure that there had been a drone, or that it could have been their drone that people were seeing.

The Government’s proposals today are welcome, but they are far too vague. We need action beyond legislation because, as the noble Baroness said, the legislation—whatever it was—was ignored. I would like to press the Minister on the timescale for these proposals. When does she think new legislation will get through this House, given the very crowded schedule?

The Gatwick incident indicated that both the police and the Army did not have the right equipment to hand to deal with drones. That is despite the fact that some of the equipment we are talking about was invented and manufactured in Britain. Will the Minister assure us that this equipment is now being rapidly rolled out to both the police and the Army? I read that it is being purchased by airports but it is important that the police and the Army carry out the appropriate exercises so that they know how to respond—they clearly did not know how to respond prior to Christmas. Obviously, that will require additional resources. I would like some reassurance from the Minister that the Government will provide those.

For satirists, the Department for Transport is the gift that keeps on giving. Over the Christmas break alone, we had the ferry company with no ferries, the drone incident with possibly no drones and today we had the traffic jam with not enough lorries. The Secretary of State said on television with unconscious irony before Christmas that the drone incident was the first time this had happened in the world and the first time there had been disruption for days at an airport. That is because the action was not taken, because the equipment was not there and the police and the Army were not prepared. It is not the first time that a drone has disrupted an airport across the world. Unfortunately, this was our world first and it is not one that we want to see repeated.

My Lords, I absolutely agree with the noble Lord that we have known about this risk and about drones for some time. We have obviously discussed the issue. But we have not been complacent. We have taken significant action already. We have brought forward legislative change introducing the exclusion zone and height restrictions and ensuring that there will be registration and competency tests. There has been work on geofencing and on standards. We are extending that exclusion zone and bringing forward further legislation on police powers.

Significant work is going on across the Government to ensure that drones are not used maliciously and to improve our defences against the misuse of this technology. We are working very closely with drone manufacturers, academia and industry to improve and extend these mitigations. As I said, we are also working with manufacturers to promote the use of geofencing and technology where a drone can automatically be prevented from flying within protected areas. We are also proceeding with detailed policy work examining the testing and use of counter-drone technologies. Having already made it illegal to fly a drone within the vicinity of an airport, we are extending that.

On the point about delay, we have brought forward legislation. The plan was to bring a drones Bill in the next Session of Parliament and that is still the case. I acknowledge that there has been a slight delay in the publication of the draft drones Bill, which is partly because of the public consultation that has helped us properly to consider the available evidence and the complexity around counter-drone technology and how that can be used safely. A very simple jamming technology would obviously have an effect on all sorts of other things in our airspace and on the ground. Given how rapidly the technology is evolving, it is crucial that we get those safety issues right.

We have seen drone incidents before, both in this country and abroad, but this is the first time that we have seen consistent use and seen it in this way. Airports have plans in place for drones and many of them have equipment in place as well, but this is the first time we have actually seen this type of incident and we are learning lessons. We can say that lessons are also being learned internationally.

I would push back on any suggestion that this has been delayed because of Brexit. I can confirm that no officials who have been working on drones have been redeployed to work on Brexit. We have taken action and are taking further action. While there has been work on preparedness in this area following Gatwick, as noble Lords would expect, over the Recess there has been significant further activity from the department, the police, the Home Office and of course airports. As noble Lords would expect, they are absolutely investing further in technology. As I said earlier, I will be holding a further meeting this week to talk through exactly what plans they have in place.

My Lords, I feel sure that my noble friend is aware of the House of Lords European Union Committee report, Civilian Use of Drones in the EU, which was published in March 2015 and subsequently debated in your Lordships’ House. The report was based on some far-sighted proposals by the European Commission to regulate this important and developing industry. A raft of suggestions and recommendations to improve safety and enforceability of existing laws was proposed by the committee. In particular, one recommendation was for the widening of the application of geofencing technology, which limits flights over high-risk sites, which would have been particularly appropriate in the Gatwick incident. Can she tell me whether any of the recommendations of the report by the Select Committee have been adopted by the Government?

I thank my noble friend for her question and for the work she did on this. She is quite right that the European Commission has proposed a number of measures. We are working very closely with our European partners on implementing them. They are still in draft, as things stand, which is why we are taking action ahead of that, but that work is ongoing. We are working very closely with the European Commission to shape the measures; that is why we have taken action on this ourselves. If we compare our regulatory system with Europe or internationally, it does stand up. It also points out that this is a UK problem, a European problem and a global problem. This is the advent of new technology, and how we best address it is something of a challenge, I fully admit.

We have taken geofencing forward and are working with manufacturers to mandate geofencing and conspicuity, which is incredibly important. One of the problems with the Gatwick incident is that it was a crime. There are ways around conspicuity and geofencing —videos are available on YouTube on how to get around them. We can get all the regulations in place—we have done, and we are doing so—but ultimately this was a crime, so we need to ensure that we have the right police powers in order to track these people down and the right counter-drone technology available at our critical national infrastructure sites, which is what we are doing.

My Lords, is it not strangely ironic that we can send a man to the moon and around the moon and we can send starships into outer galaxies but we cannot knock out a little bit of equipment not much bigger than a football which is run by four propellers? Perhaps we have got our priorities wrong. I shall ask the question which has been asked of me by many friends in Maidenhead over the past week. They live near Heathrow, but were unaffected by the Gatwick incident. Why was a helicopter not sent up to net the drone? That would have solved the problem and hundreds of thousands of people would not have been inconvenienced.

I share the noble Lord’s frustration that it was not easier to get this drone out of the sky. There are various different ways of doing that, including physical effects, such as nets, which were available, and there were helicopters on the ground as well. Sadly, nets are successful only at a certain height, as is counter-drone technology. I can assure the noble Lord that it was not for want of resources or effort that this drone was not taken out of the sky. In this case, the drone came and went a number of times and it was not there for any sustained length of time so it could be brought down. Some of the other suggestions, such as birds of prey or bullets, were not possible. Nets were available, but they are successful only at a certain height. I share the noble Lord’s frustration that it was not easier to get the drone down. It came and went a number of times but was not in the vicinity of the airport for a sustained period of time, which would have enabled that to take effect.

My Lords, does my noble friend agree that we are making a grave mistake if we see this as just infringement of airspace or even privacy and that looking to the future we should be looking at the furtherance of crime. We know that drones are used to take contraband, drugs and weapons into jails and that this building, other landmarks in the United Kingdom and large gatherings of people are vulnerable to drones carrying weapons. It was reported in the Daily Mail that Gatwick used Israeli technology to get the drone situation under control—I am sure that is accurate because it was in the Daily Mail. If that is the case, it should be welcomed because Israel is among the leaders on drone technology—it regularly has to put up with attacks from Hezbollah and Hamas using drones. Therefore, the Government are to be congratulated on co-operating with Israeli industries and are further to be congratulated on not listening to people who want to boycott Israeli goods, because on this occasion it has been clearly demonstrated that by co-operating with the Israelis our country has been made that little bit safer.

Gatwick used a number of methods and different layers were involved in addressing the incident, including UK technology, but my noble friend highlights a very good point—that this is an international challenge. He is quite right that Israel has well-developed technology in this area, and we will continue to work with all our international partners to ensure that we have the best mitigation against future drone attacks.

My Lords, I want to make two points. I completely appreciate that it is easy to be wise after the event in terms of Gatwick, for example, but the Department for Transport’s paper dated July 2018, which is quite recent, was still talking about only a one-kilometre exclusion zone. At the time, many pilots said that that was insane. After all, if you think about how long it takes to land an aircraft or to get an aircraft up into the air, the distance covered is miles more than one kilometre. Therefore, I am very glad to hear that the zone is to be extended. Is advice from pilots being taken on this? Some airports need bigger exclusion zones; some need smaller ones.

My other point was mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Pickles, and concerns prisons. Will we have exclusion zones around prisons? The number of offences in prison areas mentioned in the Department for Transport’s paper is quite high.

The noble Lord is quite right that in July we brought in a one-kilometre aerodrome restriction, but that was always meant as an initial measure. We did not have any protection beforehand, and that is the case with many countries. It was an interim measure and we said at the time that we would work very closely with the aviation industry, pilots’ unions, including BALPA, and NATS to question whether the restriction zone was large enough. We have come to the conclusion that it is not. Obviously hundreds of thousands of people live within a five-kilometre boundary of airports, so we need to make sure that we have the right exclusion zone. However, we have had conversations about this matter and have now seen evidence that, in order to ensure safety, we need to extend the restriction, and that is exactly what we are doing.

The noble Lord also rightly points out the issues around prisons, and the Ministry of Justice and the Home Office are working very closely on those. Last year they launched Operation Trenton to work together to intercept drones and track down the criminals behind them. To date, there have been 17 convictions related to drone activity and that work will continue, but it is the same challenge. The correct technology does not exist at the moment, although it is being developed very quickly. As a department and as a Government, we have invested in the extension of that technology and there are lots of interesting commercial opportunities too. As the technology develops, it will help airports and prisons, as well as this building and other important infrastructure.

My Lords, I draw attention to my entry in the register as president of BALPA, which welcomes the Minister’s Statement. The whole issue of drones is incredibly complex—it is not just a case of a drone in an airport. Drones have a legitimate part—and will have an increasing part—in integrated airspace policy. I believe that we are only just beginning to see the potential of drones, which will be developed. BALPA certainly welcomes the exclusion zone being extended, but we hope that the planned legislation will be brought forward fairly soon. One reason for that is that when legislation comes to this House it is thoroughly examined. People will look at the detail. The consultation is important, but I am sure that the examination in Committee, clause by clause, particularly in this House, which has a good base of knowledge and reputation for looking in detail at these questions, will help the Government and the country to bring this forward.

As I have said to the Minister, and I know that she agrees, this is a matter not of party politics but of civilian safety and of getting a regime which, once it is put in place, will command the support of all sections of this House. So I urge her to bring that forward as soon as she can, and to sponsor urgent research into drone protection technology. That is another area which is very important and with which, as I told the Minister earlier today, BALPA is willing to assist—including financially, if the Government are a bit strapped for cash.

I thank my noble friend for that contribution. Obviously, safety is of paramount importance and continues to be our priority. I will take the opportunity to thank BALPA for its work on this; we are pleased to be able to deliver an extension to the restriction zone. My noble friend is quite right that this is not party political; there is a will on all sides to get this legislation through and to get it right. I look forward to taking it through the House. We will publish the draft Bill shortly and will absolutely welcome noble Lords’ scrutiny of it. I have mentioned that we are already investing in research around counter-drone technology. The Centre for the Protection of National Infrastructure did significant pieces of work on this last year and will continue to do so this year. It will ensure that the advice it gives on counter-drones is available to airports and will give training courses and guidance documents.

However, I agree that we can do more. The noble Baroness is right to say that we are very thankful that no one was harmed in the Gatwick incident, but it has highlighted the importance of ensuring that we have the proper counter-drone technology in place. We are determined to do that and I thank my noble friend for his offer of a financial contribution. As I said, the Government have already invested in this, but I will take that back to the department.

My Lords, I go back to the question of netting. I cannot see the point in an exclusion zone being widened if the resources are not there to enforce it. We know that these zones are already being breached, as was shown in this latest incident. There are airport workers at Heathrow who believe that a helicopter and a net would have sorted the problem out. The Minister said that it was something to do with height, but I do not understand the logic behind that. Once a helicopter is in the air, it is in the air. When it drops its net, it drops its net to collect. Could she do a bit more homework and ask civil servants to find out why a helicopter and net could not have solved the problem? Let us have a detailed response, please.

I can assure the noble Lord that I have certainly done my homework on this. As I explained before, there were nets and helicopters available, but the way that the drone was being used—it was coming into the airport area very quickly and then moving away again—meant that we were not able to bring the drone down in the manner which the noble Lord suggests. The equipment was there, but it could not be used properly because of the way that the drone was being operated. We will continue to invest in research in this area to ensure that we have the best possible methodology available in the future—but, because of the way the drone was being flown, it was not possible to do what the noble Lord suggests.

The drone’s flight was some 14 minutes. I understand that the maximum speed of these drones is about 50 miles per hour; helicopters can travel at 200 miles per hour, so what was the problem? I still think that the Minister is not getting the right answers from her officials.

My Lords, there was a huge amount of activity down at Gatwick not only from the Civil Service but from the police, the military and the Home Office, as noble Lords would expect in an incident such as this. Drones move incredibly quickly and this drone was coming in only very briefly, so it was just not possible to put up that mitigation in time to bring the drone down. If it had been there for a significant length of time then that probably would have been possible but, as I have said, the way that the drone was being flown meant that it was just not possible to do that.

One of the aspects that this has highlighted is the need for a proper, layered response to incidents such as this. We have physical mitigations such as nets, which can be launched either from the ground up to a certain height or from a helicopter if at a higher height, but obviously that can be effective only if it is in the vicinity of the drone. The other things that we need are protection and tracing in order to ensure that we are able to see the drone in advance of it arriving into restricted airspace and to trace where it has come from, as well as bringing in the physical effect, which we need to do.

I quite agree that extending the exclusion zone to 30 kilometres would not actually have stopped the drone at Gatwick. We can and have put laws in place, but ultimately this is a crime, so we need to ensure that we have the right penalties, which I think we do; that we have the right laws, which I think we do; that we have the right police powers, which we are bringing forward in legislation; and that we have the right counter-drone technology, where we are investing in research. The counter-drone technology is very complex, and we need to ensure that we get it right from a safety perspective, a privacy perspective and a data perspective. That is a challenge that, following the consultation response, we will work through with the Home Office to ensure that we have absolutely the best counter-drone technology that we can have.

House adjourned at 9.01 pm.