New polling shows significant public concern over plans to expand use of drones in the UK

Chris Cole

A new poll has found significant public concern about proposals to open UK skies to large drones. A poll of 2,000 people carried out for UK Drone Watch by polling company Yonder on plans to open UK airspace to drones that fly ‘beyond visual line of sight’ (BVLOS) found that:

  • 51% were worried about the noise and intrusion from increased drone use
  • 60% saying they were worried about the privacy and civil liberties implications
  • 67% said they were worried about the safety implications
  • 70% agreed that if such drones were allowed to be flown in the UK, they should be flown in segregated airspace away from other aircraft.

The government is rapidly pushing ahead with plans to enable large unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) to fly freely within UK airspace as part of its Airspace Modernisation Strategy. These proposals are keenly supported by the growing drone industry and the Ministry of Defence (MoD) who are taking a particular lead in this area as they want to fly the latest version of the Predator drone – which the MoD is calling ‘Protector’  – in UK airspace.

Ministers argue that the planned changes present exciting opportunities for business to create high-tech jobs and to boost the economy across the UK. While increasing the number of drones over our heads may well be a boon for a small number of companies, it is vital that the negative aspects of ‘beyond visual line of sight’ (BVLOS) drone use within the UK are examined, and if such flights are to go ahead, privacy and safety protections are factored in from the start.

Although large drones have been regularly flown by the military for more than 20 years, communication links are regularly lost and they continue to crash for a variety of reasons. Alongside this, the bedrock of aviation safety – upon which all other safety measures are built – is that pilots are able to visually look and take avoiding action if they see danger. All other electronic safety aids are meant to assist, not replace, a pilot visualizing danger ahead. Without an onboard pilot, drones are not able to achieve this foundational safety task.The drone industry is developing electronic ‘detect and avoid’ (DAA) systems, which are designed to replicate this safety aspect of the pilot’s role, but the technology has yet to convince airspace regulators that it is ready for use.

Tim Street, UK Drone Watch Campaign Co-ordinator, said:

“Despite clear public concern about the privacy and safety implications of drone use in the UK, the government is refusing to have an open and inclusive public debate on the expansion of the use of these systems. It has flatly rejected parliamentarians’ calls for increased public engagement on the issue seemingly preferring to listen only to the drone lobby and their inflated promises of economic benefit.

While there may well be some public benefit to expanding drone use in the UK, we have to ensure that privacy protections are updated to cope with this powerful and emerging technology, particular as it is likely to be combined with facial recognition software and artificial intelligence.

UK Drone Watch are calling for the government to clearly set out their plans for the expansion of drone use within the UK in order to enable a full and proper public consultation.

Click to access omdrones-jan2021-2.pdf

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