Last week, news broke that a Jetstream, 16 seater aircraft been flown from an airfield near Preston to Inverness, a journey of 500 miles. According to the BBC, the plane was controlled by a pilot on the ground, instructed by the National Air Traffic Services. However, it was flown in integrated airspace i.e. that used by other passenger aeroplanes. The flight was carried out by Astrea, a UK consortium which has received funding from a range of companies, including BAE Systems, as well as the Technology Strategy Board, sponsored by the Department of Business, Innovation and Skills. This test flight built on 20 earlier trial flights carried out last summer by BAE Systems over the Irish Sea. Much was made in these tests of ASTREA’s “electronic eye” which was able to detect and avoid bad weather and “sense and avoid” mid-air collisions. At the same time, the Miami Herald reported that, in Afghanistan, unmanned cargo helicopters were used to drop supplies to a remote base in northern Helmand.
These flights raise interesting questions. Broadly, concerns at the use of drones have focused on the technology which can be attached to them and the manner in which this technology is used. For example, the ability to arm a drone, to circle overhead communities for hours or days at a time, before dropping missiles in remote parts of the world where there is no declared armed conflict, violating international law. The fact that a drone is unmanned, combined with lower operating costs, has led to the argument that the barriers which inhibit states from entering conflict are now greatly reduced. Further, domestically, the ability, for example, to attach infrared cameras to drones and to use this to spy on citizens, see the case of the New York couple whose rooftop assignation was the subject of prolonged observation by a police drone, has led to unease at the impact of drones on the right to privacy and broader civil liberties.
But do these concerns still apply in the case of unmanned cargo helicopters and passenger planes? And if not, what are we worried about? Are we just technophobes, resisting any new aerospace developments?
Though a Guardian article in May 2012 does indicate that fighter jets could become unmanned with the aim of flying tricky missions for extended periods of times, considering the capabilities of the Predator and Reaper drones, this seems unlikely. The impetus behind the unmanned cargo helicopter seems to be, judging by the media coverage, the ability of it to enter a dangerous area, with no risk to crew, and deliver supplies, at a significantly reduced cost ($1,300 vs. $11,000 per hour to operate).
However, while much is made by Astrea and BAE Systems of the operating technology aboard unmanned planes, which should identify and avoid hazards, campaigners have highlighted the absence of any kind of consultation about these developments. The British Airline Pilots Association are quoted as saying there is a need to resolve issues to ensure safety and pointed to well-trained pilots as the most important safety system currently available on broad aircraft. A recent story about a near miss between an unidentified object and an Airbus A320 near Glasgow highlights the potential dangers of integrated airspace, where piloted and unpiloted vehicles share the same space. While the Project Director at Astrea seems to acknowledge the breadth of issues raised when he commented that “Its not just the technology, we’re trying to think about the social impact of this and the ethical and legal things associated with it”, which could be considered a nod toward the need for broader public consideration of these safety concerns. These safety concerns are not insignificant if one considers the damage that can be wrought by a passenger plane were it to collide with either another plane or a building. The images of planes crashing into the Twin Towers surely come to the fore unless the Government, and Astrea and its consortium of companies can assure the public that enough safeguards have been put in place. In this respect size does matter. There is a difference between the rather embarrassing crash of the drone owned by Merseyside Police, which was roughly the size of two basketballs, and the crashing of an 18 seater passenger plane.
PS. Drone Wars UK has an excellent drone crash database that is worth checking out.