Remote Control: Remotely Piloted Air Systems - current and future UK use - Defence Committee Contents

2  Remotely Piloted Air Systems


9. This section provides some essential definitions related to remotely piloted air systems and other associated technologies. A glossary of terms used in the report is provided in Annex B.

10. In its written memorandum, the MoD pointed out that most existing manned aircraft terminology remains equally relevant to unmanned aircraft operations.[3]

11. In its memorandum, the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) differentiated current remotely piloted air systems according to size and capabilities:

·  Nano - smallest class of systems used for low-resolution image capture in scenarios such as infantry local-area reconnaissance, especially in the urban environment. Example: Black Hornet.

·  Miniature - small size lightweight design used for short-range surveillance using small and fairly basic sensors. Example: Desert Hawk.

·  Tactical - a larger class, with 20m wingspans, longer range and endurance. Equipped with medium-quality imaging and transmission systems for ISTAR purposes and, for armed variants, attack. Examples: MQ-9 Reaper; Watchkeeper.

·  Strategic - largest class of current unmanned systems, having wingspans analogous with manned aircraft and able to carry large payloads. Equipped with high-powered surveillance systems able to work in numerous spectrums and high-quality video feeds. Used for battlefield reconnaissance, undertaking roles previously filled by manned aircraft. Example: Global Hawk.[4]


12. The term "drone" was used originally to refer to unmanned aircraft used for target practice. Its origins can be traced back to the de Havilland Queen Bee aircraft developed by the Royal Aircraft Establishment, Farnborough.[5] Development of an air gunnery practice machine started in the mid-1930s. Queen Bee aircraft were converted from standard de Havilland Tiger Moth trainers into which a primitive radio-control system could be fitted.

13. Using "drone" to refer to modern air systems is inaccurate and misleading as it fails to capture either their purpose or degree of technological sophistication. Nonetheless, we acknowledge that the term has become commonplace, particularly in the media, when referring to modern remotely piloted aircraft.

Unmanned Aircraft (UA), Unmanned Air Vehicle (UAV) and Unmanned Air(craft) System (UAS)

14. These terms describe an aircraft which is intended to operate with no human pilot on board as part of an unmanned aircraft system, which includes a number of elements such as the ground-based control unit, ground-launch system and the aircraft and all associated flight safety-critical elements. An unmanned aircraft:

·  is capable of sustained flight by aerodynamic means;

·  is remotely piloted or capable of autonomous operation;

·  is reusable; and

·  is not classified as a guided weapon or similar one-shot device designed for the delivery of munitions.

15. According to the Military Aviation Authority the terms unmanned aircraft, unmanned air vehicle and unmanned air system are obsolete having been superseded by remotely piloted aircraft and system. However, these terms are still in common usage particularly in relation to civilian systems or military systems which do not require to be flown by a qualified pilot.

Remotely Piloted Aircraft (RPA), Remotely Piloted Air Vehicle (RPAV) and Remotely Piloted Air(craft) System (RPAS)

16. These terms were introduced in order to convey the fact that these systems are not "unmanned" but rather under the control of a human pilot or operator. Larger and more sophisticated remotely piloted aircraft generally require a qualified pilot to be at the controls.

Unmanned Combat Air System (UCAS)

17. There is no commonly agreed definition of an unmanned combat air system, but several systems currently under development represent a class of remotely piloted aircraft with offensive and defensive capabilities, including low-observable (stealth) design, making it suitable for applications in high threat environments.[6]

18. Nomenclature has proven to be somewhat of a vexed issue as far as this subject is concerned. The use of the term "drone" has become commonplace, particularly among the mainstream media despite its outmoded status when used to refer to modern unmanned aircraft. We believe that it is important that the debate about current and future use of these systems by the UK Armed Forces and others is not confused due to the use of inaccurate terminology.

19. The MoD explained why it differentiated between the terms unmanned air system and remotely piloted air system:

    Although UAS is the preferred term in a military environment, there are occasions when such a generic term is unhelpful. The term 'unmanned' can cause confusion or uncertainty over the actual level of human control and has led to safety, ethical and legal concerns being raised, particularly with regard to the employment of weapons and flight in non-segregated airspace. These concerns can be addressed in part by using terminology that better describes the level of human control of such aircraft as being equivalent to that of piloted aircraft; the pilot is simply physically remote from the aircraft itself. Consequently, the MoD believes it is more appropriate to use the term Remotely Piloted Aircraft (RPA) to describe such aircraft, and Remotely Piloted Air(craft) System (RPAS) to describe the entirety of that which it takes to deliver the overall capability.[7]

20. It is acknowledged by several contributors to the inquiry that the terms remotely piloted aircraft (RPA) and remotely piloted air(craft) system (RPAS) are not yet widely adopted. Nonetheless, we believe these are the most accurate terms to use when referring to the armed MQ-9 Reaper operated by the RAF in Afghanistan. These aircraft are flown remotely by a human pilot who, along with a wider crew operating from a ground control station, has general oversight and control. In relation to existing unarmed systems used by the Army for intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR), it may be more appropriate to refer to unmanned air systems (UAS).

Automation and autonomy

21. The concepts of automation and autonomy are often applied to unmanned aircraft interchangeably, but, as the MoD has noted, the distinction is important "as there are moral, ethical and legal implications regarding the use of autonomous unmanned aircraft".[8]

22. In its written memorandum for this inquiry, the MoD pointed out that there is often a misconception that remotely piloted air systems are autonomous, despite the fact that there is always human involvement in the decision making process. Its submission explained:

    Industry and academia often discuss automation and autonomy interchangeably, referring to technology research for all types of UAS. There are no universally agreed definitions. But the MoD defines autonomy as a machine's ability to understand higher level intent, being capable of deciding a course of action without depending on human oversight and control. Automation refers to a system that is programmed to logically follow a pre-defined set of rules with predictable outcomes, such as an automatic landing system. Improving capability can include automating part of a process to make the remote Pilot or operator's job easier. But current UK policy is that the operation of weapon systems will always be under human control. No planned offensive systems are to have the capability to prosecute targets without involving a human.[9]

23. Referring specifically to the armed Reaper remotely piloted air system, the Royal Aeronautical Society summarised the present position:

    There has [also] proved to be a constant misconception that "drones" are autonomous killing machines, whereas in reality each Reaper is controlled all the time by highly-trained operators bound by the same [Rules of Engagement] ROE as manned combat aircraft. There is no artificial intelligence associated with Reaper, only a lower level automation, such as an autopilot. The current need for humans in the loop is dictated by the complexities of attack missions and airspace de-confliction requirements. Remote piloting is expected to remain required for the foreseeable future.[10]

24. Air Commodore (Retd) Bill Boothby, former Deputy Director of Legal Services (RAF), in a response to our inquiry into UK Armed Forces Personnel and the Legal Framework for Future Operations, explained that autonomy and automation of attack decisions were the subject of significant current research. There was, however, no current internationally agreed interpretation of the precise meaning of autonomy:

    My current view is that autonomy can most sensibly be seen as something of an absolute in which it is the machine that, by understanding higher level intent and by perceiving its environment, itself decides on appropriate action without human oversight or control. Its individual actions may not be predictable. This interpretation of autonomy is not universally shared. I consider that reaching an internationally agreed interpretation of terminology is a necessary precursor to a sensible international discussion of the acceptability of such technologies. For the time being, however, it would seem sensible to regard autonomy as an absolute state in which the weapon system learns its own lessons, modifies its behaviour accordingly and in which its behaviours are not constrained by human involvement. All lesser forms of mechanical decision-making would then be classed as automation, so there will be 'degrees of automation' but not 'degrees of autonomy'.[11]

25. Drone Wars UK, a campaign group, argued that a new generation of unmanned aircraft being developed and test flown (such as BAE Systems Mantis and Taranis and the Northrop Grumman X-47B) "are not piloted remotely from the ground but rather fly autonomously following [a] pre-programmed mission".[12]

26. Northrop Grumman Corporation, a leading manufacturer of unmanned air systems, confirmed that a distinction should be drawn between the degree of autonomy of UAS versus RPAS:

    RPAS are aircraft, such as medium-altitude long endurance (MALE) unmanned aircraft, that are flown with a remote aircraft control stick by a ground based pilot-in-control through a direct link to the aircraft

    UAS are autonomous aircraft, flown by an on-board computer but controlled by a pilot from a ground station. These can fly routes that are entirely pre-programmed or a route that is entirely "ad-hoc" as changed by the pilot-in-command. Autonomy separates command and control. Autonomy allows the aircraft to control itself, leaving the pilot free to command the aircraft and the mission.[13]

27. Looking to the future use of remotely piloted air systems by the UK, the MoD told us:

    Given the nature of combat operations there will always be a role for highly skilled operators and pilots to ensure that remotely piloted combat missions are conducted appropriately, proportionately and legally.[14]

28. There is considerable potential for development of future remotely piloted air systems which have a greater degree of autonomy, however, the MoD has stated explicitly that remotely piloted combat missions will always involve human operators and pilots. We support this policy for all current and future UK armed remotely piloted air system operations.

Current UK operations

29. The MoD operates a range of remotely piloted air systems and unmanned air systems principally for intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) purposes. The Department told us that the UK currently only deploys these systems in support of operations in Afghanistan:

    In Afghanistan UAS provide intelligence in support of our ground commanders, enabling them to stay one step ahead of the enemy. Whether for targeting the Taliban or supporting troops on patrol, their ability to loiter over and survey areas for enemy activity and then feed back images and video in real time means they are an invaluable asset to our forces on the ground. Together, the UK's fleet of UAS have carried out over 160,000 hours of ISR operations.[15]

30. In its written submission, the MoD emphasised that the UK operates remotely piloted air systems in Afghanistan under the authority of UN Security Council resolutions and that "governance and accountability arrangements in place for UK operated unmanned air systems are the same as those for manned aircraft".[16]


31. In its memorandum, the MoD provided us with information about all of the UK's current remotely piloted air systems.
Unmanned Air System Number of UAS Comments

10Reaper RPAS is a medium altitude, long endurance remotely piloted aircraft system providing ISR capabilities to UK and coalition ground forces in Afghanistan. It is the only armed RPAS used by the UK. RAF aircrew operate the aircraft in Afghanistan from control stations based at RAF Waddington, Lincolnshire and Creech Air Force Base in the United States. Since it came into service in 2007 Reaper has flown over 50,000 hours on operations supporting ground forces in Afghanistan.

8Hermes 450 is a Tactical UAS providing ISR capability (principally video) in support of UK ground forces in Afghanistan. The system is provided to the UK MoD via a service provision contract with Thales. Hermes 450 is operated by 1st Artillery Brigade. Since it came into service in 2007 Hermes 450 has flown over 84,000 hours on operations supporting ground forces in Iraq and Afghanistan.

222Desert Hawk III is a mini UAS providing an organic ISR capability (principally video) to Platoon, Company and Battle Group level ground forces in Afghanistan. Currently there are 12 Desert Hawk III systems operated in Afghanistan. The majority of these systems are operated by 1st Artillery Brigade. Each comprises between eight and ten aircraft. Since it came into service in 2007 Desert Hawk III has flown over 27,500 hours on operation in support of forces in Afghanistan.

324Black Hornet is a nano UAS providing 'over the wall' ISR capability (video) and is operated by the Infantry. There are 162 systems in operation. Each complete system comprises a handheld controller, a display, a base station and two Black Hornet Aircraft.

18The Tarantula Hawk (T-Hawk) is a mini UAS, part of the Talisman Route Proving and Clearance capability and is used for Counter-IED Convoy Protection on operations. T-Hawk is operated by 1st Artillery Brigade soldiers embedded in the Royal Engineer squadron.

Table 1: Ministry of Defence, Current MoD Systems (as at 1st April 2013). Images: Crown Copyright 2013

British Army

32. The Army currently operates four unarmed systems in Afghanistan:

·  Hermes 450

·  Desert Hawk III

·  Tarantula Hawk

·  Black Hornet

33. According to the MoD, the current purpose of these systems is to support UK, ISAF and Afghan forces:

    The supported forces will submit an ISR request in advance and, once a UAS has been tasked, the mission will be planned in close cooperation with the Ground Force, and communications maintained throughout the mission to ensure threats and opportunities are exploited rapidly.[17]

Royal Air Force

34. The RAF operates the UK's only armed remotely piloted air system, the General Atomics MQ-9 Reaper. It has been armed with precision-guided weapons since May 2008. The aircraft is operated by a pilot and a sensor operator, aided by a mission intelligence coordinator.

Royal Navy

35. The Royal Navy will shortly operate ScanEagle, a maritime surveillance remotely piloted air system, in conjunction with existing ISR assets used on naval operations such as helicopters and long-range radar.


36. In March 2011 the MoD published The UK Approach To Unmanned Aircraft Systems Joint Doctrine Note 2/11 (JDN 2/11)[18] which "considers how UAS may contribute to the UK's future defence and security needs between now and 2030". The introduction to the Joint Doctrine Note states that:

    Unmanned aircraft now hold a central role in modern warfare and there is a real possibility that, after many false starts and broken promises, a technological tipping point is approaching that may well deliver a genuine revolution in military affairs.[19]

37. However, the conclusion to the Joint Doctrine Note raised a series of fundamental questions about the existing and future use of remotely piloted air systems by UK Armed Forces:

    Do military planners and politicians understand the full implications of the systems they are currently tasking and those they hope to procure? In the current economic climate, who will decide the best balance between keeping existing equipment and personnel, or whether to give these up to fund new unmanned systems? Do we understand even the basic implications of such decisions for the associated defence lines of development? Crucially, do we have a strategic level of understanding as to how we will deliver the considerable number of changes that will need to be made to existing policy, concepts, doctrine and force structures?

38. The conclusion to Joint Doctrine Note 2/11 conceded that its relevance was "of the order of 18 months and during that period much of its detail and many of the issues raised will be overtaken by events". Now, some three years later it is clear that further consideration of many of the issues the Joint Doctrine Note raises is overdue. We recommend that the MoD revisit these issues and publish an updated Joint Doctrine Note setting out its current approach to remotely piloted aircraft systems no later than September 2014.


39. As with UK manned combat aircraft, the MoD told us that UK remotely piloted aircraft operate within the constraints of UK rules of engagement (ROE) and policy, even where operational control is assigned to a Coalition Commander, such as the Commander of ISAF. The MoD also stated that UK policy relating to targeting by remotely piloted aircraft is exactly the same as that for manned aircraft (and land and maritime weapons where applicable):

    It is entirely compliant with International Humanitarian Law. Targets are always positively identified as legitimate military objectives and both pattern of life assessment and collateral damage estimate conducted. Strikes are carried out in accordance with the Law of Armed Conflict.[20]

40. Air Commodore (Retd) Bill Boothby stated:

    Remotely piloted aircraft, or drones as they are colloquially called, are subject to the same body of targeting and weapons law as other weapon systems, such as manned attack aircraft.[21]


41. The General Atomics MQ-9 Reaper operated by the RAF is the UK's only armed remotely piloted air system. The RAF fleet rose to ten in early 2014 as an additional five aircraft were accepted into service. RAF Reapers provide persistent intelligence, surveillance, target acquisition and reconnaissance (ISTAR) for ISAF forces in Afghanistan, mostly in support of UK forces in Helmand province.

42. General Atomics explained the role the aircraft was able to fulfil:

    The RPA's ability to remain airborne for nearly 40 hours without refuelling provides the persistent ISR essential to the collection of extensive data on adversary activities. For the soldier on the ground RPA can transmit images directly to a portable device and also provide a time-sensitive strike capability to counter fleeting threats. Additional applications include convoy protection, where the use of ISR sensors to identify IEDs (Improvised Explosive Devices) is invaluable.[22]

43. Since May 2008, UK Reaper aircraft have been armed with precision-guided weapons—Hellfire laser guided air-to-ground missiles and GBU-12 Paveway 500lb laser guided bombs. An investigation into the use of the MBDA Brimstone missile is also underway.[23] The Brimstone, currently used by the RAF on the Tornado, has an advanced sensor and a smaller warhead than a Hellfire missile, with a resulting higher level of accuracy and lower collateral damage.

44. By 31 August 2013, UK operated Reaper aircraft had flown over 50,000 hours on operations in the ISR role with 418 weapons fired in the same period.[24]

45. The Reaper is not an autonomous system—aircraft are remotely piloted with aircrew involved at all times. On current operations the Reaper is launched from Kandahar Airfield in Afghanistan by crews deployed in theatre. If the satellite communications link from the ground control station is lost and cannot be re-established the aircraft will fly a pre-programmed route to a "Launch and Recovery Element" area where it can be landed safely via line of sight communication links.


46. Madeleine Moon MP's visit to RAF Waddington allowed her to meet with Reaper aircrew from XIII Squadron, including pilots, sensor operators and mission intelligence co-ordinators. She was also able to witness at first hand a Reaper mission being flown over Afghanistan from a ground control station in the base.

47. Prior to the visit, the MoD explained how remotely piloted air system operations compared with manned operations:

    The UK experience of operating the Reaper RPAS in Afghanistan suggests that Reaper aircrew, despite being based at RAF Waddington and Creech Air Force Base in the US, are just as, if not more, connected to the situation on the ground in Afghanistan as compared to operators of other aircraft types. The increased information available to operators and subsequently ground commanders, the endurance of Reaper and the substantial operational experience of Reaper crews, whose years of experience flying missions over Afghanistan, results in an unrivalled depth of knowledge. This in itself can make a significant contribution to the safety and security of UK and coalition forces in Afghanistan, while also helping to minimise the risk to civilians.[25]

48. Discussion with the men and women responsible for operating Reaper provided helpful insight into their roles and experience. XIII Squadron Reaper pilots have a mix of previous experience, having flown aircraft as diverse as Harrier, Nimrod and Tornado. There are few direct entrants to remotely piloted air system operations at present, but they would undertake appropriate pilot training before converting to remotely piloted air system operations. It is also possible for pilots to move from Reaper to other platforms: two pilots from 39 Squadron have retrained for Typhoon.

49. The vast majority of operational time by UK Reapers is spent on intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) tasks, supporting ground commanders in Afghanistan. Prior to an operation, crews receive a daily mission brief which sets out what their mission is that day. Important information such as key changes in theatre, weather conditions and planned shift changes are outlined. Crew members' procedural knowledge and judgement is also tested through questions and discussion of possible scenarios which might arise. Video footage from recent missions is used to highlight specific issues and to aid learning.

50. In general, crews operate on a 2-3 hour programmed shift followed by a break and crew change. They may return to the ground control station to continue the mission they were engaged in previously or receive a fresh mission brief.

51. Following any weapons release there is a formal debrief process in which learning points are identified. Lessons learned are shared with other aircrew as part of future daily mission briefs.

52. Asked about the psychological impact of their role and the challenges associated with balancing work with family life, crew members reflected on the importance of decompression and keeping the two parts of their lives discreet. Trauma Risk Management (TRiM)[26] assistance is available for anyone who requires it, but crew found that informal chats with one another are often the best way to decompress. In terms of separating work from family life, some personnel who had previously operated from Creech Air Force Base in Nevada, USA, as part of 39 Squadron, had found the one hour drive to and from work was beneficial to them in keeping work distinct from home life. That commute was not a feature of operating from RAF Waddington. Crew members were, however, disciplined about maintaining an operational focus during their shift by, for example, having no access to a mobile phone while at work.

53. Personnel were keen for the public to know more and understand better what it is they do and to dispel some myths that have grown up about Reaper operations in particular. One pilot commented that the public needed to know that remotely piloted aircraft are "not robots, they're not autonomous and we spend an awful lot of time training to fly them". This training emphasised all aspects of the RAF rules of engagement such as whether a strike is necessary, whether any civilians are nearby, and what instructions have been received from the ground commander. Reaper aircrew were firmly of the view that the loiter time of remotely piloted aircraft allowed more informed decisions to be made and consequently the risk of civilian casualties was reduced should a missile strike be required.

54. All personnel present were convinced that the lives of British and ISAF forces had been saved through use of remotely piloted air systems in Afghanistan and they felt that there was a strong sense of gratitude from ground forces for the support Reaper crews provided.

55. Asked what they needed to do their jobs better, crew members focused on three elements:

·  Additional personnel as, despite the enduring nature of the campaign, they only have the minimum necessary to fulfil the task;

·  Upgrades to the sensor suites on the Reaper to further enhance their capability; and

·  A UK training system rather than a continuing reliance on the USAF.

56. Personnel did, however, voice some concerns about career development prospects given uncertainty about the future of UK Reaper operations. They were unclear what would happen should the programme end at the conclusion of operations in Afghanistan.

57. It was very clear from the visit to XIII Squadron and discussions with Reaper aircrew that all were experienced professional personnel with a clear purpose and keen understanding of the Rules of Engagement which govern their operations. Despite being remote from the battle space they exhibited a strong sense of connection to the life and death decisions they are sometimes required to take. This was in stark contrast to the image portrayed by some commentators of "drone" pilots as video gaming "warrior geeks". We record here our appreciation for the important role they continue to perform in Afghanistan.


58. Some campaign organisations have raised concerns that the UK has provided assistance to a covert programme of remotely piloted air strikes by the USA in countries including Pakistan. Information released by the MoD in February 2014, in response to a Freedom of Information request from Drone Wars UK, revealed that between October 2006 and 31 December 2012, of the 2,150 Reaper missions flown by UK personnel in support of operations in Afghanistan and Libya, there were 271 missions in Afghanistan when UK personnel utilised a US Reaper as a UK Reaper was unavailable. During these missions, UK personnel released 39 weapons.[27]

59. Asked about the matter in a debate on Afghanistan, the Secretary of State for Defence, Rt Hon Philip Hammond MP, explained:

    We operate a combined fleet with the US and there is ISAF tasking. UK and US aircraft therefore fly ISAF mission tasks and they may be piloted by UK or US pilots. However, UK pilots always operate to UK rules of engagement. The rules of engagement for remotely piloted aircraft are exactly the same as those for our Tornado aircraft and those that will apply to our Apache rotary-wing aircraft when they are in action.[28]

60. The Secretary of State for Defence also stated that UK remotely piloted aircraft operated only in Afghanistan and that other members of ISAF had not been able to use any for intelligence gathering or for armed attacks in Pakistan.[29]

61. However, the Secretary of State's oral answer appeared in part to contradict a written answer given by Anna Soubry MP, Parliamentary Under Secretary of State and Minister for Defence Personnel, Welfare and Veterans. Asked to provide details of US Air Force personnel manning UK Reapers on non-UK missions outside the launch and recovery phase, the Minister replied: "Outside of the launch and recovery phase, UK Reaper RPAS have always been operated by UK pilots".[30]

62. In light of these apparently inconsistent answers by Ministers, we call upon the MoD to provide absolute clarity about whether UK Reaper aircraft have ever been operated by US personnel outside the launch and recovery phase. If public confidence is to be built around the use of remotely piloted air systems it is important that it is clear that UK aircraft have only been utilised within Afghanistan and always in accordance with UK rules of engagement.


63. The MoD told us that it was aware of only one incident involving an armed UK remotely piloted air system Reaper, which had resulted in the deaths of civilians:

    On 25 March 2011, an attack on two pick-up trucks resulted in the destruction of a significant quantity of explosives and the death of two insurgents. Sadly, four Afghanistan civilians were also killed. In line with current ISAF procedures, an ISAF investigation was conducted to establish if any lessons could be learned or if any errors in operational procedures could be identified. In that case, the report concluded that the actions of the Reaper crew had been in accordance with extant procedures and rules of engagement.[31]

64. An Operational Learning Account and After-Action Report (OLAAAR) is produced after every weapon release. Aircrew involved in the strike engage in a formal debrief process in which learning points are identified. Any lessons identified are shared with other aircrew as part of future daily mission briefs.

65. In light of concerns about the potential for civilian harm in remotely piloted aircraft strikes, the Bureau of Investigative Journalism argued that it was "important that the British government establishes the international precedent of publishing a fuller record of drone strikes and their impact, to the extent that is operationally secure".[32]

66. We consider it important that the MoD is as transparent as it can be about remotely piloted air system operations in order to build public confidence about their use and to debunk myths and counter misinformation. We note that a review is conducted and a report produced after every remotely piloted aircraft weapons release. While the public do not need to know every time weapons are released they do need to feel confident that rules of engagement are applied and followed consistently.


67. UK operations in Afghanistan have drawn heavily on new and emerging remotely piloted air system technologies in order to offer better protection to UK, ISAF and Afghan forces on the ground. The intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance capabilities of our forces have been enhanced immeasurably. More controversial has been the use of the Reaper remotely piloted air system platform to conduct strike operations using precision-guided weapons. Following this inquiry, we are satisfied that RAF Reaper pilots and flight crew have a high level of experience and appropriate training to conduct such strikes. We are also satisfied that the RAF rules of engagement for Reaper operations, as outlined to us directly by senior RAF officers during this inquiry, are common with those in force for manned aircraft, and provide a high level of assurance that, as far as possible, civilian casualties will be avoided and collateral damage minimised.

Use by other nation-states

68. In its submission, RUSI listed countries known to have RPAS capabilities:

General Atomics MQ-1 Predator (Armed or unarmed)

General Atomics MQ-9 Reaper (Armed or unarmed)

Northrop Grumman RQ-4 Global Hawk (Unarmed)

AeroVironment RQ-11 Raven (Unarmed)

Lockheed Martin RQ-170 Sentinel (Unarmed)

The US Navy, Army, Border Agency, Coast Guard and CIA also operate fleets, totalling a larger number than in USAF service.

ItalyMQ-1 Predator (Armed or unarmed)

MQ-9 Reaper (Armed or unarmed)

FranceEADS Harfang
IsraelIAI Eitan, MALE Tactical RPAS, Israel Air Force

IAI Heron, MALE Tactical RPAS, Israel Air Force

Elbit Hermes 450, Tactical RPAS, Israel Air Force

BlueBird SpyLite, Miniature RPAS, Israel Air Force

RUSI written memorandum.

In addition, the Dutch Ministry of Defence announced in November 2013 that it had decided to purchase four Reaper remotely piloted air systems, initially unarmed. The RUSI memorandum also noted that NATO nations operating under ISAF in Afghanistan, including Germany and Canada had invested in remotely piloted air systems. Other countries such as Russia, Iran and China also have unmanned capabilities, but a lack of concrete information meant it was difficult to provide a detailed analysis.[33]

69. A study by the NATO Parliamentary Assembly, Unmanned Aerial Vehicles: Opportunities and challenges for the Alliance, published in 2012, provided additional information about NATO Member States' use of these systems.

    While at least 25 of the Alliance's Member States possess drones, most of these are smaller tactical drones with neither the capacity nor the endurance of larger "flagship" UAVs like the Predator, Reaper, or Global Hawk. Encouragingly, NATO has taken an important first step in remedying the UAV shortfall with the recent agreement on the Allied Ground Surveillance (AGS) system. By 2017, 13 Member States will have acquired five Global Hawk high-altitude long endurance drones, which will be operated and maintained by all 28 Member States.[34]

Constraints on the use of remotely piloted air systems


70. The MoD told us that the constraints on military use of unmanned air systems in the UK and overseas included, but were not limited to, the following:

Use of Airspace and Safety - the lack of "Sense-and-Avoid" technology

71. The MoD told us that Watchkeeper was being fitted with a system that would make it compliant with International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) standards.[35]

Basing - proximity to the target area of interest

72. The MoD told us that in order to utilise unmanned air systems in the most efficient manner, they should be based as close as possible to the target area of interest to allow for the longest loiter time possible. In a "non-permissive" or hostile environment this would be "extremely difficult":

    Larger platforms' reliance upon an airfield potentially reduces their utility, and consideration must be given to basing within a permissive location, which may create additional burdens (force protection, Command & Control, logistics etc). [36]

Command Delay - via satellite relay

73. As UAS suffer from a very slight command delay, inputs into the controls from the ground station take a brief time to reach the aircraft, but there are robust procedures to deal with it. The main challenge is for take off and landing, leading to the need for a visual line of sight (VLOS) pilot at the airfield. [37]


74. This can be particularly difficult for lighter airframes to manage and significantly constrains their flying hours in certain environments, such as areas that suffer from high cross winds, icing or lightning strikes. [38]

Electromagnetic Environment (EME)

75. The use of UAS is entirely dependent upon data feeds. They also require access to frequencies and spectrum to operate.[39] Additional demands for bandwidth will need to be factored into future military electromagnetic spectrum requirements.


76. The MoD explained that military registered remotely piloted air systems are regulated by the Military Aviation Authority (MAA), while the safe operation of civil remotely piloted air systems in the UK is governed by the requirements of the Air Navigation Order 2009. RPAS, as with all other aircraft, will only be permitted to operate in UK airspace if it is considered that it is safe for them to do so. Remotely piloted air system specific airworthiness regulations are in the early stages of development, but this is being done on an international scale, with a view to global harmonisation, rather than the UK 'going it alone'.[40]

77. The Royal Aeronautical Society stated that airspace integration was one of the great challenges for future remotely piloted air system operations. It pointed to various international efforts to evolve rules, regulations and the technology necessary for integration.[41]

78. The Joint Authorities for Rulemaking on Unmanned Systems (JARUS) is a group of experts from National Aviation Authorities (NAAs) and the European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA). Its purpose is to recommend a single set of technical, safety and operational requirements for the certification and safe integration of Unmanned Aircraft Systems into airspace and at aerodromes. The work of JARUS will take into account emerging ICAO standards, recommended practices and guidance material on the matter.[42] European participants in JARUS are also committed to the development of the European RPAS Steering Group Roadmap. The European RPAS Roadmap proposes a series of actions to be taken to achieve remotely piloted air systems integration into the European air system from 2016. The material will be made available to interested parties such as, ICAO, EASA, NAAs and industry, for consideration and use.[43]

79. General Atomics argued that, at a pan-European level, the main area of constraint on the expansion of remotely piloted air systems is "precise specifications to enable RPA to conform to regulatory requirements governing full access to [controlled] airspace". It is presently prioritising the development of a "Type Certifiable"[44] Reaper aircraft.[45]

80. Due to safety and reliability issues, Drone Wars UK warned that it would be unlikely that British forces would be able regularly to fly and train with larger unmanned aircraft within non-segregated and even within segregated British airspace within a few years: "without a dramatic improvement in the reliability and safety record of military UAVs it is highly unlikely that the CAA as regulators nor the British public would accept this".[46]

81. Until the necessary technical, safety and operational requirements for remotely piloted air system integration into shared airspace are met, only a very limited number of zones around the UK will be available for flight training and testing. In May 2013, in response to a Parliamentary Question the MoD published a map of Ministry of Defence (MoD) reserved airspace areas within the UK where remotely piloted air systems may be operated. The answer stated that these airspace areas, which are subject to future changes as new operating practices and platforms come into service, can be used either for specific periods by RPAS as detailed in the UK Aeronautical Information Publication or by activation of a Notice to Airman (NOTAM).[47] A copy of the map of MoD reserved airspace areas is included at Annex A.


82. There are many constraints on the use of remotely piloted air systems in shared airspace whether in the UK or elsewhere. In its response to this report we invite the MoD to set out in detail what action the Government as a whole is taking domestically and internationally to facilitate the development of the technologies, systems and regulatory changes which will be required prior to the full and safe integration of remotely piloted air systems into shared airspace.

3   Ev w2, para 2.14 Back

4   Ev w11 Back

5   "Automatic Flight", Flight, 16 May 1958 Available at:  Back

6   Systems currently under development include Taranis (UK), Neuron (France), and X47B (USA). Back

7   Ev w2, para 2.13 Back

8   Ministry of Defence, The UK Approach To Unmanned Aircraft Systems Joint Doctrine Note 2/11 (JDN 2/11), March 2011. Available at: Back

9   Ev w2 Back

10   Ev w53, para 15 Back

11   Air Commodore (Retd) Bill Boothby, memorandum received in response to inquiry into UK Armed Forces Personnel and the Legal Framework for Future Operations Back

12   Ev w50, para 3 Back

13   Ev w41 Back

14   Ev w7 Back

15   Ev w2, para 3.2 Back

16   Ev w9, para 7.1 Back

17   Ev w2, para 3.5 Back

18   Ministry of Defence, The UK Approach To Unmanned Aircraft Systems Joint Doctrine Note 2/11 (JDN 2/11), March 2011. Available at:  Back

19   Ministry of Defence, The UK Approach To Unmanned Aircraft Systems Joint Doctrine Note 2/11 (JDN 2/11), March 2011. Available at:  Back

20   Ev w5, para 3.13 Back

21   Air Commodore (Retd) Bill Boothby, memorandum received in response to inquiry into UK Armed Forces Personnel and the Legal Framework for Future Operations Back

22   Ev w101, para 11 Back

23   Ev w11 Back

24   Ev w2, para 3.3 Back

25   Ev w5, para 4.4 Back

26   The TRiM programme trains small teams of non-medical personnel to recognise the signs and symptoms of stress and to give advice to individuals from within their own units on coping strategies and how to manage them. Available at:  Back

27   Ministry of Defence, FoI response 4 February 2014. Available at:  Back

28   HC Deb, 10 February 2014, col 588 Back

29   HC Deb, 10 February 2014, col 593 Back

30   HC Deb, 15 January 2014, col 578W Back

31   Ev w5, para 4.3 Back

32   Ev w31 Back

33   Ev w13 Back

34   Pierre Claude Nolin, NATO Parliamentary Assembly, Unmanned Aerial Vehicles: Opportunities and challenges for the Alliance, 20 November 2012 Available at:  Back

35   Ev w9, para 6.12 Back

36   Ev w9, para 6.12 Back

37   Ev w9, para 6.12 Back

38   Ev w9, para 6.12 Back

39   Ev w9, para 6.12 Back

40   Ev w9, para 6.9 Back

41   Ev w54, para 25 Back

42   JARUS,  Back

43   European RPAS Steering Group, Roadmap for the integration of civil Remotely-Piloted Aircraft Systems into the European Aviation System, June 2013. Available at:  Back

44   A type certificate is issued to signify the approval of the design of certain types of aircraft, engines and propellers.  Back

45   Ev w100 Back

46   Ev w51, para 7 Back

47   HC Deb, 5 May 2013, col 222W Back

previous page contents next page

© Parliamentary copyright 2014
Prepared 25 March 2014