Commercial and recreational drone use in the UK Contents

6Technology required

Purpose of the Chapter

119.This Chapter outlines the evidence received relating to the technology required, both within drone devices and as part of the infrastructure, to mitigate the risks posed by drones and to enable the opportunities presented by the growing industry.

Drone devices

Identification and electronic conspicuity

120.A key technological advancement highlighted by a large number of witnesses was a requirement to make all drones electronically conspicuous. Electronic Conspicuity (EC) is an umbrella term for a range of technologies that, in their most basic form, transmit the position of the host aircraft to other airspace users operating compatible equipment. More advanced devices can also transmit and receive, displaying and alerting pilots to other/conflicting traffic who have compatible EC devices. EC devices turn the traditional ‘see and avoid’ concept into ‘see, BE SEEN, and avoid’.179 Nesta described electronic conspicuity as “a class of technologies that make an object such as a drone visible to electronic systems such as air traffic control”.180 In its report, Flying High, Nesta recommended that “electronic conspicuity devices are fitted to all air traffic and integrated into a system, to improve safety, security, privacy and positive public perception”.181 The Civil Aviation Authority and the British Airline Pilots Association also recognised the importance of increased electronic conspicuity of drones.182

121.Tim Johnson, representing the CAA, told us that electronic conspicuity:

Will make sure that everything that is flying is electronically visible. That would give a better picture of everything that is flying around and allow a much more system-wide understanding about who is flying where. That is clearly dependent on participation in that system, and operators being aware of their responsibilities and actively participating in the system, to make sure they are visible and following the rules.183

122.We heard concerns from Blighter Surveillance Systems, who argued that the current technology that is used for conspicuity may be too heavy for smaller drones. These concerns were echoed by drone users at the roundtable event (see Annex 2), who explained that the conspicuity of devices could affect the operating ability of their drones. Tim Johnson, who represented the Civil Aviation Authority, told us, however, that the technology was getting smaller.184 Richard Parker representing Altitude Angel, also explained that it might not be necessary for the device to sit on the drone itself:

Most drones are controlled today by, maybe, a mobile phone or some other controller. It is quite common for manufacturers to look at putting a kind of relay for the drone’s actual location to pick up that information from the controller and relay that elsewhere.185

123.Baroness Vere of Norbiton, the then Aviation Minister, explained that electronic conspicuity “is a very important development” and the Government had completed a consultation on the subject—Aviation 2050—which it was expecting to respond to by the end of the year.186 The then Aviation Minister told us:

We will look at how that [the consultation] progresses, but it is my view that, all other things being equal, unless there is a particular issue brought to our attention, both manned and unmanned aircraft should be conspicuous in future.187

In further evidence supplied to the Committee by the then Minister, she explained that the forthcoming White Paper would set out how the Government intended to do this.188 When the then Aviation Minister was asked about retrofitting drones with electronic conspicuity, she said she did not know if this would be the case and explained that this question formed part of the consultation.189

124.The Government should ensure all drones, including existing drones, are electronically conspicuous within two years.

Geo-fencing and embedded safety features

125.A further technology to mitigate the risks of drones is geo-fencing. Geo-fencing is a software built in to drones with GPS capability to prevent them from flying near certain pre-programmed geographical areas. Brendan Schulman, representing the world’s largest small drone manufacturer, DJI, told us that DJI had done a lot of work over the course of several years to ensure that there were safety features built into its drones.190

126.A number of those who provided evidence, including ARPAS-UK, BALPA and the University of Birmingham, explained that while in-built safety technologies were effective at stopping accidental incursions they failed to protect against deliberate criminal use of drones.191 The UK Computing Research Committee argued that it was “increasingly possible to disable protection mechanisms” and customise off-the-shelf drones in such a way as to bypass in-built safety technologies.192 Dr Stephen Wright, based at the University of the West of England, argued that due to the commonness of in-built safety features, specifically geo-fencing, amongst off-the-shelf drones “geo-fencing override (‘jailbreaking’) tools [are] becoming widely available to skilled amateurs.”193 Further to this, BMFA member, Mr Bernhart Dambacher, told us that there would be immense difficulties in regulating smaller recreational and homemade drones as “tracking and monitoring is only available on the off the shelves more expensive machines”.194

127.At the drone user roundtable (see Annex 2), some participants told us that they believed it should be a criminal offence to disable in-built safety technologies, and that penalties for doing so should be clearly set out in the forthcoming Drones Bill. Some also explained that it would be wise for it to be a legal requirement for all manufacturers to ensure that their drones had in-built safety standards, whilst others felt that putting liability on the manufacturer over the user was unfair. Drone user Michael Clark said that all drones in the UK should adhere to the same safety standards as DJI, and Mr Jonathan Ridgeway also explained that there should be standard safety features on all drones over a certain weight.195 Mr Paul Harvey similarly explained: “I would be happy to see a ban on any drones/aircraft that do not have at least some of these features”.196

128.However, Mr John Irvine stated that such technology only unfairly penalised hobbyists as it increased the cost of small drones.197 Further to this, others argued that the compulsory introduction of such technology was ineffective and would cause unnecessary expense. The BMFA and drone users Mr Bernhart Dambacher and Mr Simon Barkle, argued that this would be difficult to police:

It’s fine having tracking technology on a drone but how and what is that information going to be used for and by who? It won’t be able to tell you who’s flying it and it certainly won’t make the drone any safer than it already is. So why introduce it?198

129.Further, at the roundtable event (see Annex 2), an individual compared a drone to a car—the manufacturer made it possible for a car to travel at high speed, but it was the onus of the driver to ensure that they stuck within the speed limits.

130.The then Aviation Minister told us that, according to recent EU regulations, it had recently become mandatory for certain safety features, such as electronic conspicuity and geo-fencing, to be included in all drones within a three-year transition period.199

131.There is no justifiable reason why a drone should not have in-built safety features as standard. The Government must ensure that all manufacturers include safety features, such as geo-fencing and electronic conspicuity as standard in their drones. Further, it should be a criminal offence to disable such features. Penalties for doing so should be set out clearly in the forthcoming Drones Bill.

132.The Government should also ensure that all existing drones are retrofitted with electronic conspicuity within the next two years.

International standards

133.The British Airline Pilots Association (BALPA) argued that for in-built safety features to be sufficiently reliable “those capabilities will have to be designed, built and certified to recognised and accepted international standards”.200 Further, Professor Scanlan, representing the University of Southampton, advocated international standards for drone safety.201 Sir Brian Burridge, the CEO of the Royal Aeronautical Society, went on to explain that “as a generality, international standards promote investment in research and technology in a particularly efficient way, compared with having to stovepipe it for different markets.”202

134.EASA (the European Aviation Safety Agency) developed specific proposals for European states to abide by as a framework for Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) and utilised the expertise of different interest groups within Europe to create these. These included regulations about flying a UAV in a crowded urban area, keeping one’s drone in visual line of sight and general safety regulations about flying drones within specific airspace.203

135.The previous Prime Minister set out her ambition to stay in the EASA (European Aviation Safety Agency) after the UK has left the European Union:

We want to explore with the EU, the terms on which the UK could remain part of EU agencies such as […] the European Aviation Safety Agency. We would, of course, accept that this would mean abiding by the rules of those agencies and making an appropriate financial contribution.204

136.As aviation crosses borders and the use of drones is taking place internationally, it is important that the UK engages in best practice and knowledge sharing with other countries. The Government should continue to pursue its ambition to stay in the European Aviation Safety Agency after Brexit. Further, the Government should seek to secure international agreement on international mandatory standards for drones.


Unmanned traffic management system (UTMS)

137.The Committee received a significant amount of evidence relating to the establishment of an Unmanned Traffic Management System (UTMS). Richard Parker, from Altitude Angel, told us that the establishment of an unmanned traffic management system was reliant upon drones being electronically conspicuous: “a key component of that UTM, as a manufacturer of UTMs, is having access to identify information to be able to share that with different participants involved in security, legitimate drone operations and so on.”205

138.Richard Parker also said that one of the key challenges faced by his business, as a manufacturer of UTMs, was “that there apparently is not a single body responsible for overseeing the different requirements of the commercial industry, the aviation safety standards and the security services.”206 He went on to recommend that the Government appoint “someone in the UK who has the responsibility to determine what is required to mitigate some of the risks we are talking about today, as well as to welcome the very legitimate uses of drones that many people seek to embrace.”207

139.Tim Johnson representing the CAA discussed the benefits of Operation Zenith, which is the codename for a programme of live demonstrations of Air Traffic Management (ATM) and Unmanned Traffic Management (UTM) integration in controlled airspace, deeming it “a really good piece of work”.208 He further explained that “there will need to be more such trials to test the different elements of UTM”.209 The then Aviation Minister also discussed the establishment of an Unmanned Traffic Management system:

That is how we see the system working, and we think that is fair and future-proofed […] If somebody puts a drone or an unmanned aircraft up in the sky with a beacon on it and it is beeping, and that drone is not in the registration system, we will be able to say, ‘What’s going on there?’ That is quite important.210

This relates to other comments that the then Minister made that we have outlined at paragraph 28 where the Government argued that electronic conspicuity was important for all UAVs, including model aircraft, as it was important to track what was in the sky to ensure safety for the public.

140.We were further informed that establishing an Unmanned Traffic Management system was particularly important if the UK was to allow—and reap the benefits of—Beyond Visual Line of Sight (BLVOS) operations. When discussing BVLOS, Richard Parker explained that:

it is quite common to see drones being deployed for safety of life type of scenarios. The challenge today is that it is not possible to use drones in all the ways that people wish to because there is no unifying traffic management system.211

141.Tris Dyson, representing Nesta, was asked if the technology existed to allow BVLOS operations. He pointed to the creation of an Unmanned Traffic Management system:

A lot of testing and development needs to happen to prove that it is safe and to prove it is effective, and that it will integrate effectively with services. […] At present, that is happening outside the UK. That is the disappointing thing. A lot of the testing development is happening in cities in the US. There are already beyond visual line of sight services operating in places like Finland, Switzerland and Australia.212

This perspective was also shared by Julia Jiggins representing Thales.213

142.The Government must establish and fund further testing facilities in which Unmanned Traffic Management (UTM) systems and related technologies, including beyond visual line of sight operations, can be tested. Clear plans should be set out for this as soon as possible and further testing should begin no later than Summer 2020.

Tracking and counter-UAV

143.The Committee heard from Andy Sage, who represented NATS, that there was a need for drones to be remotely identified and tracked: “anything that can emerge through regulation to make it mandatory for drones to be remotely identified and tracked will help us manage that traffic.”214 Captain Tim Pottage told the Committee that detection technologies were “pretty effective”, however, “to cover all eventualities there probably needs to be a suite of sensors and, ultimately, they need to be optically identified.”215

144.Captain Tim Pottage emphasised the importance of the ‘detection’ element of counter-drone technologies:

The most important element for pilots is detection. Don’t let the desire to have some mechanism for defeating drones hold up the implementation of detection equipment. If we know where they are and, more importantly, where it is safe or where one is in the way, we can take action to avoid an accident.216

145.Andy Sage, representing NATS, stated that detection software was useless without the ability to identify drones as either friend or foe:

If all we did was switch on radars, take the raw data and present it to air traffic controllers, there would be chaos. It is only when you can correlate that with the identity of those flights and their expected flight plans that you can see the outliers and those who are where they should not be.217

146.The Committee received limited evidence relating to ‘defeat’ technologies. Special Sergeant Taylor told us: “the most effective [defeat method] is electronically jamming them through radio frequencies and GPS. That is probably the most contentious because of the fall-out from doing so. That has been looked at; trials have taken place.”218 However, Special Sergeant Taylor explained that while jamming was “the most effective way” to defeat a drone, “the issue is around legislation” as “legislation will prevent it […] it would be classed as aircraft interference].”219 To enable organisations to use this defeat technology, Special Sergeant Taylor told us there would “absolutely” have to be a change in law to provide for that.220

147.Drone users, including Stephen Ogborne and Mr Michael Clarke, warned against the use of jamming technologies as they potentially presented a risk to human life.221 Dr Alan McKenna, a law lecturer at the University of Kent also argued that jamming technologies might have specific legal and cost implications:

This does however lead to questions over what sites would be expected to install such equipment and the level of resources that would be considered necessary to be acquired in order to provide a reasonable level of protection. Outside of those sites that would be ‘expected’ to deploy such equipment it could be envisaged that a variety of both public and private organisations may also wish to deploy such equipment, and even perhaps certain individuals. This does however raise questions over who may be allowed to deploy such technology and the process by which permission may be granted.222

148.Currently, the use of jamming technologies is illegal. The Wireless Telegraphy Act 2006 makes it illegal to block signals.223 The then Minister however told us that the Government had discussed counter-UAV technology extensively:

a lot of airports have already done an analysis of where the most likely launch sites are and where they want to deploy their capabilities. It will never be one size fits all, but the Government do what they can to test the technology that is coming through.224

She also told us that the Home Office and the Department for Transport were working on their counter-UAV strategy.225

149.The Government should seek to publish its counter-Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAVs) strategy by Spring 2020 and this should include clarifications on whether the Government intends to amend legislation to enable certain organisations such as the police to use jamming technologies.

179 Civil Aviation Authority, “Electronic Conspicuity devices”, accessed 8/10/2019

182 Civil Aviation Authority (RDU0130) para 44; British Airline Pilots Association (RDU0186) p 3

187 Ibid

188 Department for Transport (RDU0182)

191 ARPAS-UK (RDU0164); British Airline Pilots Association (RDU0186); University of Birmingham (RDU0036)

192 UK Computing Research Committee (RDU0031) para 4

193 University of the West of England (RDU0029) para 8.2

194 Mr Bernhart Dambacher (RDU0021) p 1

195 Mr Michael Clarke (RDU0049) para 2; Mr Jonathan Ridgeway (RDU0028) para 6

196 Mr Paul Harvey (RDU0044) p 1

197 Mr John Irvine (RDU0073) p 1

198 Mr Bernhart Dambacher (RDU0021); Mr Simon Barkle (RDU0069) para 2

200 British Airline Pilots Association (RDU0186) p 2

203 EASA, “Civil drones (Unmanned aircraft)”, accessed 8/10/2019

206 Ibid

207 Ibid

216 Ibid

221 Stephen Ogborne (RDU0012) para 3; Mr Michael Clarke (RDU0049) para 3

222 Dr Alan Mckenna (RDU0098) paras 11–14

223, “Wireless Telegraphy Act 2006”, accessed 8/10/2019

Published: 11 October 2019