Drone Future

Friday 31 August 2012

A perimeter fence protects something extraordinary at the end of a grey, plain-looking residential street in East Lancashire, England. Hidden under tight security inside a hangar at Warton aerodrome are prototypes that represent the next generation of unmanned aircraft, known more commonly as drones. The latest technology, being developed and tested at Warton by defence contractor BAE Systems, is considered the final step toward integrating military-style drones into civilian airspace across British skies. It is revolutionary and groundbreaking. But it is also deeply controversial.

For many, the mere mention of the word drones conjures up negative connotations. They have become potent, deadly weapons in the so-called War on Terror, deployed with increasing frequency by the United States under the Barack Obama administration.

Controlled by satellite navigation and flown remotely by pilots based in the US states of Nevada and Virginia, drones have killed up to an estimated 4,000 suspected militants and 1,000 civilians in Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia since 2002. Human rights groups allege that America has violated international law in how it is using drones, committing war crimes in the process. Members of the unmanned aircraft industry in Britain, however, are keen to present the aircraft in a new light – distancing them from warfare in a bid to win over the public.

“The military determine how they use them in conflict zones and it does get bad press,” says John Moreland, general secretary of the Unmanned Aerial Systems Association, a trade group based in Middlesex. “But that doesn’t necessarily mean that we condone the actions that governments use them for.

“As much as we deal with the military aspect of the vehicles that we get involved in, those are operated by the military under military rules and they’re nothing to do with civilians like ourselves that produce the equipment.”

Currently, small “mini-drones” – similar in size to radio-controlled model aircraft – can legally be flown under existing UK regulations. Most of these are under 20kg, carry small cameras, and can only be flown up to 400 ft in areas that are not densely populated.

In contrast, military-style drones are much larger, can soar at heights of more than 20,000 feet, and can only be flown in segregated military airspace for safety reasons. But technology being developed by BAE Systems in Warton is working on changing this, by integrating advanced “sense and avoid” technology so that the larger drones can be flown alongside manned aircraft in normal airspace.

“The primary reason they will be used is to collect data,” Moreland says. “You won’t see them, they will be at high altitude. They will be in controlled airspace, working within all the rules of the aviation authority, and for all intents and purposes they will appear to everybody else, to all the controllers, as just another aircraft.”

Not everyone shares Moreland’s relaxed attitude about drones. A concern for civil liberties campaigners is that police could use them to conduct secretive surveillance from an eye so high in the sky that it is invisible from the ground. Police forces across England have held meetings about introducing large drones, and the European Parliament is working on a plan to use the aircraft for border security purposes, tracking immigrants and smugglers attempting to enter countries on the continent illegally by boat. This follows the trend set in America, where drones known as “Predators” are deployed in states like Texas as part of border-security patrols.

“I think that there are civil liberties and privacy issues that simply aren’t being dealt with,” says Chris Cole, an Oxford-based campaigner who runs a popular website called Drone Wars UK. “The problem is nobody is taking these issues on board and yet we are pushing ahead with enabling unmanned aircraft to fly over our heads without addressing these questions. The big military companies are not doing this for our own good – they just see future profits in this area. So I think that there are real concerns.”

The sense and avoid technology being developed by BAE Systems is set to be tested in 2013, and experts working in the drone industry estimate that as early as 2015 they could be operational in civilian airspace alongside manned aircraft. Some are even predicting that, at some point in the not-so-distant-future, we will see unmanned aircraft flying passengers in the same way some trains today, like the Paris Metro, function without drivers.

But a more pressing concern, particularly for activists such as Cole, is Britain’s ongoing role conducting drone attacks in conflict zones. Last month it was revealed that British pilots had flown drones over Libya during the uprising against Muammar Gaddafi, contradicting previous government claims that the RAF had only flown them in Afghanistan. This has raised questions about whether the Ministry of Defence (MoD) has been candid about the full extent of its involvement in drone strikes.

“This is one of the most important ethical and legal questions of our time with regard to militarism and the armed forces – how drones are changing the nature of warfare,” Cole says. “The problem is they are not being very transparent about the use of drones. The public interest in this issue is so important, but the data about how drones are being used is not being disclosed by the MoD.”

Pressure on the government to release information about how it uses drones in warzones is likely to heighten in the months ahead. Pilots of a fleet of ten “Reaper” drones that the RAF uses to conduct attacks in Afghanistan are to be relocated to England for the first time later this year. The pilots, currently based in Nevada, will relocate to RAF Waddington in Lincolnshire, where they will pilot the drones using joystick-like controls from behind large monitor screens.

Already, anti-war activists have held demonstrations at the base to protest. 74-year-old veteran campaigner Helen John has set up a pre-emptive peace camp, vowing to stay indefinitely in “total defiance” over what she calls “murder by remote control.”

“Having lived through WWII, I witnessed the destruction of my grandmother’s house, cut in two by a V2 rocket,” John says. “I feel deeply ashamed that in the 21st century we are bringing in a new generation of murderous technology to blight the future.”

Since 2007 the MoD’s Reaper drones have fired more than 280 missiles and flown for 30,000 hours above Afghanistan, the equivalent of having flown from London to Sydney over 500 times. The government has been hesitant to release figures showing casualties inflicted by British drones. However, in December 2010 David Cameron said 124 insurgents had been killed in British drone strikes, while in April 2011 it emerged that four Afghan civilians were killed and two others injured in an attack by an RAF drone in Afghanistan’s Helmand province.

The MoD has accepted there is a wider debate to be had about issues around the deployment of drones. It is also keen to distance itself from the style of drone attacks perpetrated by the United States, which take place covertly in multiple countries outside established laws of war.

“I wouldn’t want you to confuse the way we operate drones with the way the Americans operate drones,” says Lex Oliver, an MoD spokesman. “They use them for wholly different missions.

“The UK’s rules of engagement for using a drone are exactly the same as for using a manned aircraft. They’re still operated by a pilot it’s just that they are operated by a pilot remotely as opposed to a pilot who’s sat in the aircraft.”

It is estimated that the MoD will have spent half a billion pounds sustaining its Reaper drones in Afghanistan by 2015. The government continues to fund and invest in developing more advanced unmanned technology, and has lent financial backing to an ambitious drone being developed by BAE Systems at its Warton base.

“Taranis,” named after the Celtic god of thunder, is a stealth unmanned aircraft that has been described as resembling a spaceship out of Star Wars. The aim of Taranis, according to BAE Systems, is to test whether it is possible to build a remote controlled stealth drone capable of “precisely striking targets at long range, even in another continent.” It will be the first of its kind and, if testing next year proves successful, could mark a major step towards a day when manned fighter jets are considered a remnant of the past. A dream or a nightmare, depending on where you stand.

Civilian casualties

The UK purchased its first military “Reaper” drones in 2006 from US firm General Atomics, and carried out attacks using these in Afghanistan in 2007. The Ministry of Defence has since expanded its fleet of Reapers to ten, also investing £800 million in 54 “Watchkeeper” surveillance drones to assist the Army during military operations.

Proponents of drone bombings say they are accurate and enable targeted precision attacks without placing infantrymen on the ground. But critics say they result in high civilian casualties and can lead to a detachment from the harsh realities of war because pilots fly them remotely from thousands of miles away.

The MoD claims only four Afghan civilians have been killed in its drone strikes since 2008. However, it also acknowledges there are "immense difficulty and risks" involved in verifying who has been hit and cannot tell exactly how many how many alleged insurgents it has killed.

US drone strikes alone have killed between 588 – 1085 civilians in Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia since 2002, according to statistics compiled by London's The Bureau of Investigative Journalism.

Northamptonshire Connection

Controversial American drone strikes in Pakistan have caused uproar in the country, sparking protests and vocal opposition from political leaders. Though British forces are not involved in the strikes, the UK government has been challenged for allowing the manufacture of parts used in US drones to be shipped from a factory in Northamptonshire.

Last month lawyers acting for a tribal elder from North Waziristan, an area that has been bombed repeatedly, wrote to the Department for Business Innovation and Skills to complain about the exports. They alleged that Towcester-based General Electrics Intelligence Platforms (GEIP) has provided various computer systems used as part of US drone operations, and urged for stricter controls to prevent such exports in the future.

GEIP said its technology is not used directly as part of drone “weapons systems” and is instead “used solely in connection with the operation of the aircraft itself.” The BIS, which manages exports, said it would not comment on “individual licence requests, the application or the end user.”

Founder of human rights group Reprieve, Clive Stafford Smith, said in a statement: “The Department for Business is responsible for preventing British companies engaging in illegal activities, and must take immediate action on this issue. It is difficult to think of a more heinous business than helping to kill, maim and terrify citizens of a so-called ally with whom we are not at war."