All posts by almacblog

About almacblog

I am a law lecturer at the University of Kent.

Inaccurate, sensationalist journalism impedes a true understanding of drone issues

An inaccurate news report produced by Sky News concerning drone related calls made by the public to UK police forces, and a subsequent copycat report by the Daily Telegraph, highlight the media’s apparent obsession with mere sensationalism over meaningful accurate reporting.

The so-called exclusive Sky News story published on the 23rd February, included a sub-heading which stated, ‘Forces receive more than 2400 reports of drone incidents in 2018 including criminal damage, harassment and voyeurism.’  The report went on to say, ‘Police Chiefs have warned drone users they will face “serious consequences” if they use the gadgets to commit crimes – with the number of reported incidents rising by 40% between 2016 and 2018.

Via freedom of information requests Sky News obtained drone call details from 20 Police Forces showing in Sky’s words, ‘2435 reports of drone incidents in 2018 – up 2% on 2017 (2377 incidents) and 42% higher than 2016 (1709 incidents).’

Four days before the Sky News report was published, I published details in this blog of drone calls logged by 24 Police Forces across the country in 2018, obtained via freedom of information requests that I had made. The data showed a rise from 3024 calls in 2017 to 3421 in 2018. Unlike the Sky News report my post provided a table of the number of calls received by each of the responding police forces. The table showed that 8 of the 24 forces actually had a drop in drone related calls being logged.

Sky News and the copycat Daily Telegraph report describe the calls as ‘incidents’. This is factually inaccurate. How can calls for example received from professional drone pilots telling the police where they will be flying be described as ‘incidents’? They cannot, and with there being a significant number of such calls logged, it points to both Sky and the Daily Telegraph being unconcerned about factual accuracy that might get in the way of a ‘good’, sensationalist story. The Sky report provides no inkling that some police forces have shown a decline a drone related calls, instead choosing to provide unbalanced sensationalist discussion of some of the specific calls made across a number of forces.

The real story, and the one that should have been reported and analysed, is that there appears from the data a slowdown in calls being made by the public in respect to drones. If there is a slowdown and perhaps a decline in the number of calls made then we need to consider what the factors might be for this development. We may ask for example whether leisure drone flyers are being more responsible? Perhaps alternatively there has been a decline in the leisure user flying of drones?

The Sky News report quotes Merseyside Police Deputy Chief Constable Serena Kennedy, the National Police Chiefs Council lead on the criminal use of drones, stating, ‘Those who chose to use drones for a criminal purpose should be in no doubt that they face serious consequences and police will use all available powers to investigate and prosecute them.’ She continued, ‘We are currently working with government, the Civil Aviation Authority and others on future legislation to meet the challenges and risks posed by drones. At the same time all forces are working together to ensure consistency in the way these incidents are recorded and investigated.’

The fact that Serena Kennedy uses the word incidents could perhaps absolve Sky News as to its own use of the word. That however would seem generous, as it is not clear the precise context in which Kennedy uses the word,  whether for example she is merely referring to the criminal use of drones.

A further point of interest is her reference to all police forces working together to ensure consistency in the recording and investigation of drone ‘incidents’  It is however questionable whether all forces are on board in achieving this aim. A feature of trying to obtain freedom of information data relating to drones from across all UK police forces is that there is no clear uniformity of practice. At best, some forces provide relatively good background detail on what specifically each call concerned, whilst other forces will only provide a number relating to a general police classification. At worst however, freedom of information requests for drone data are rejected because there is no easy searchable mechanism available, and with each record having to be gone through manually the cost involved enables the particular force to reject the FOI request. Without doubt, a uniform system would be significantly beneficial, enabling a much more accurate picture to be provided both regionally and nationally. It would also perhaps enable a more deeper questioning of why despite Serena Kennedy’s claims that the police will use all the powers available to them to prosecute offenders, to date in five years there have only been seven prosecutions for violations of the Air Navigation Order rules involving drones. This is surely a matter that a supposed professional media organisation should be reporting on rather than producing deliberately inaccurate sensationalism.

 

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Number of Drone related calls received and logged by UK Police Forces in 2018

 

 

Police Force

 

2017

 

 

2018

 

Avon & Somerset 9 24
British Transport Police 67 152
Cambridgeshire 147 81
Cleveland 89 101
Derbyshire 89 131
Devon & Cornwall 143 159
Dorset 80 201
Durham 61 59
Dyfed-Powys 54 61
Essex 46 131
Greater Manchester 274 314
Hertfordshire 171 179
Kent 202 242
Lancashire 205 234
Lincolnshire 93 77
Merseyside 269 265
Metropolitan Police * 97 80
Northumbria 111 82
North Wales 11 25
North Yorkshire 19 29
Nottinghamshire 115 125
Police Service of Northern Ireland 258 301
South Wales 80 114
South Yorkshire 135 137
Staffordshire 193 168
Suffolk 88 79
Surrey 96 115
West Midlands 172 268
West Yorkshire 167 133
TOTAL 3541 4067

(This table will be updated if additional data becomes available – last updated 10th March 2019)

Police Scotland   – On 10th April 2018 Police Scotland introduced specific drone call log codes to better able them to record drone calls. Before this time they could not provide drone data. The number of drone calls logged from 10th April to 31st December 2018 was 646.

*Metropolitan Police   – On 18th October 2018 the Metropolitan Police introduced a specific drone tag to more effectively identify drone related calls. Previous drone call data publically provided came from only one of a number of databases in use and therefore gave an incomplete picture. From the 18th October 2018 to 31st December a total of 31 drone calls were logged. From the 1st January 2019 until the 10th January 2019 26 calls were logged.

Gatwick drone(s) – a preventable wake-up call? (Update)

The Gatwick drone incursions that caused chaos over three days at the busiest time of the year for airports will likely force the hand of the government into what some will consider as long overdue action. Unsurprisingly there are calls for further regulation, without at times those who make such demands really understanding what it is precisely that they are seeking. Even before the drone incursions occurred the government were already in the planning stage to add additional regulations, which include a compulsory registration scheme, and some additional police powers such as the ability to issue fixed penalty notices.

So would additional regulations have made any difference at Gatwick? We obviously still do not know the motives of those behind the illegal incursions, but given the numerous drone flights made at Gatwick over such a lengthy period of time, it has to be suggested that it is unlikely that any additional criminal penalties would have made any difference. Criminal laws are used to punish and deter. Amongst a number of regulatory provisions that appear to have been violated by those flying the drones is Air Navigation Order rule 240 which prohibits a person recklessly or negligently endangering an aircraft, for which the maximum penalty is 5 years in prison or an unlimited fine. Would increasing this to 10/20/30 years have made any difference?

It is perhaps somewhat ironic that one of the possible reasons for the Gatwick drone fiasco, which has economically been so disasterous, is that the government have been over several years fixated by the massively speculative financial benefits the emerging drone industry could benefit the UK economy by. Some might argue that has led them into a paralysis of doing nothing that could impact this sought after ‘golden egg’. But then it can be argued it is one thing creating new regulations that could impede drone commercial use and development, and quite another seeking to protect key infrastructure and maintaining the confidence of the public.

The government may seek to portray the incurisons as unique and without parallel, but the fact is this is not the first occurrence of an incursion at Gatwick which has led to disruption. On the 2nd July 2017 over a half hour period a drone incurison led to several hours of serious delay. Why were the lessons of this incident not learnt? This is a serious indictment of the government, and one they should rightly be held to account. It is no use saying the recent incursions were without parallel because clearly it could be envisaged that a malicious attempt to bring utter chaos to the airport at the busiest time of the year was a strong possibility. We must also go further and ask what immediate measures have been taken to better protect all key national infrastructure? Are they all so vulnerable?

The call for further regulation suffers from an additional weakness, and that is its value when enforcement of existing laws are so patchy. One of the statistics that has been much mentioned  following the Gatwick incursions are the large and growing number of drone near misses with manned aircraft. In not one of these many incidents reported to the Airprox Board which investigates such incidents has the drone pilot involved ever been identified. Outside of convictions for using drones to deliver contraband into prisons, since the first conviction in 2014 for violations of the Air Navigation Order rules there have in total only been it is believed seven convictions. The most recent being in November, when in Cambridgeshire a man was fined £184 for flying his drone in conflict with a Police helicopter that had been on a search and rescue mission. The low level of convictions speaks volumes. At a time of very stretched resources what are the Police to prioritise?

There has with the Gatwick incident been much discussion on the use of technological solutions, and why these have not been more widely adopted. Aviation Minister Baroness Sugg when pressed on such matters in the House of Lords, merely stated that the government remained in discussion with technology manufacturing companies.  The concern with the use of jamming equipment is the possibility of a collateral impact in seeking to block signals. Who or what else could be impacted by use of such equipment? There are laws in place on this with the Wireless Telegraphy Act 2006 making it illegal to use jamming equipment, but Part III of the Police Act 1997 provides for authorisation for law enforcement purposes.

Just two day’s before the Gatwick incident, the Guardian carried a report on the use of anti-drone technology in prisons, which suggested that the Government were considering doing a U-turn and possibly buying anti-drone technology to prevent contraband being delivered into prisons, whereas they had previously chosen not to do so on cost grounds. The reason for the possible change of heart was the apparent success of a system purchased for Les Nicolles prison on Guernsey. The Guernsey system called SkyFence was bought in May 2017, and operates by detecting incoming drones and then blocking signals so that the drone returns to where it came from. An interesting aspect to the Guernsey purchase of the system was that whilst when installed the prison authorities could use the detection part of the equipment, they could not use the blocking element because under the legislation, the Prisons (Interference with Wireless Telegraphy) Act 2012, which gives prisons governors the right to use technology to block wireless signals, this legislation when created did not cover Guernsey. It was only in April 2018 that secondary legislation was passed – the Prisons (Interference with Wireless Telegraphy)(Guernsey) Order 2018, to amend the original legislation to include Guernsey and thus allowing the second part of the equipment to be turned on at Les Nicolles.

One of the potential impacts of the Gatwick debacle is the effect on public confidence in the use of drone technology. Many in the industry and for example police forces who themselves use drones operationally have worked extremely hard to engage with the public over concerns they might have, and have sought to show the positives of the technology. Gatwick is a major setback, and the failure to address the known potential risks and concerns is a serious indictment of the Government, who now need to re-build trust as a matter of urgency, and hopefully accept responsibility and not seek to provide questionable and disrespectful excuses.

Update

The story has now highlighted a further issue in which the government have arguably been found wanting, and that is the regulation of the media. The couple from Crawley who were arrested on suspicion of being responsible for the incursions at Gatwick by Sussex Police, were released without charge, but in the time from their arrest until their release elements of the media went on what can only be described as an intrusive reporting frenzy. The names of the couple were splashed on front pages, alongside a number of pictures of them and their home. There were also highly questionable banner headlines such as from the Daily Mail with, ‘Are these the morons who ruined Christmas?’. Such reporting again raises serious questions over what is legally and morally allowable when police are conducting their enquiries and are questioning suspects. The recent case involving Sir Cliff Richard in which the BBC were found liable for violating his privacy rights in naming Sir Cliff is a prime salutory example.

The Government as part of the Conservative Party manifesto for the last election dropped the proposed second part of the Leveson Inquiry (Leveson 2) into press standards, and in May this year they saw off a House of Commons vote that sought to force them into having to conduct the second part.

Calls are already being heard for an enquiry into Gatwick, and it can be envisaged that such calls will now encompass the role of the press, and the wider question of press standards in general.

 

 

 

Urgent questions for the MOD and Government to answer following the disclosure of the Sea King helicopter asbestos alert

Recent media reports of an alert being issued by the Ministry of Defence (MOD) warning that large numbers of military engineers and former military engineers could have been exposed to asbestos whilst servicing Sea King helicopters, highlights both the historic exposure to asbestos our military personnel have faced, but also the ongoing risks that exist from asbestos that remains in situ. The alert also points once again to an arguable failure of government to fully and appropriately address all of the issues asbestos continues to pose.

The risk from asbestos to military engineering personnel servicing Sea Kings has been present since 1969 when the Sea Kings first entered service. A spokesperson for the MOD was reported as stating that items in current opertional Sea King helicopters suspected of containing asbestos were being urgently removed.  The Sea Kings continue to play a key aviation role, with the media pointing unsurprisingly to the fact that until last year Prince William flew Sea Kings in his role as an air ambulance pilot.

Sea King helicopters manufactured in the UK were also sold to a number of foreign governments, leading as part of the alert the MOD to contact those governments to warn of the possible dangers posed by the asbestos within the helicopters.

It is disturbing that the initial alert issued by the MOD did not come in the form of a public announcement, but rather in the form of a ‘secret’ document, sent to service and ex-service personnel recipients, who were asked not to share its details with those outside of the Armed Forces. What it may be asked have the MOD to hide that the alert was issued in such a cloak and dagger way, only of course for it to be leaked to the media? Over two weeks after the media disclosure of the alert the MOD finally issued a public news announcement, stating that they were conducting an investigation into whether the helicopters contain asbestos, and that advice to veterans would be published when available.

The catalyst for the initial alert appears to have been the tragic death of an Australian military engineer, Petty Officer Greg Lukes, who died in 2014 from kidney cancer, aged just 37. The Australian military report into his death, which was reported by Australian media in August 2016, states that the death was likely to have been caused by exposure to asbestos, petroleum, petroleum by-products, toxins, or a combination of these.

Why it must be asked did it take 2 years from the date of the official Australian report into the death of Greg Lukes for the MOD to warn military personnel of the potential exposure risks they have faced? Having issued the alert, the subsequent public announcement is a disgrace in merely stating that advice will be given when it is available. All those identified as being at potential risk of developing asbestos related diseases should undergo immediate health checks, and be regularly assessed for the rest of their lives, with this being co-ordinated by the MOD. Much has been made by this government and the previous coalition government of the armed forces covenant, in essence our debt to our service personnel.  Such a debt must surely involve co-ordinated health care.

There appears to have been a significant failure on the part of the MOD to protect its military personnel, but there are also questions over the information it may have provided foreign government purchasers of Sea King helicopters. Greg Lukes joined the Australian Navy as a 17 year old in 1997. In 1999 he joined the particular squadron in which he was to service Sea King helicopters. It should be asked when did the Australian Navy become aware of the asbestos within the helicopters? Had they been warned by the MOD? Just a year after Greg Lukes commenced his work in the squadron that would ultimately lead to his death, official documentation shows that the UK military had identified 49 items containing asbestos in Sea King helicopters. A UK Health and Safety Commission meeting report in 2003 states that the items containing asbestos in the helicopter were being replaced when suitable alternatives were found, and that Sea King helicopters it was said should be asbestos free by late 2005. There appear many questions that need to be answered.

A further aspect of the UK covenant to its service personnel must arguably be where such personnel do develop asbestos related diseases then financial compensation must be available to such victims and their families.  Historically however members of the Armed Forces were unable to sue for personal injuries suffered against the Crown due to Crown Immunity. This position changed with the passing of the Crown Proceedings (Armed Forces) Act 1987, allowing members and ex-members of the military to claim for personal injuries against the Crown sustained from the date the Act was passed. Section 1 of the 1987 Act makes clear that no action could be brought in respect to any act or omission involving the armed forces committed before the date of the passing of the 1987 Act. In other words where alleged negligence that led to an injury occurring came before 1987 involving a member of the armed forces, no claim was possible. This effectively prevented those military personnel exposed to asbestos before 1987 from then subsequently bringing claims and receiving compensation when they contracted an asbestos related disease after 1987.

The position remained unchanged in respect to the asbestos related disease mesothelioma until December 2015. Change in respect to mesothelioma came about due to the catalyst of the introduction of an insurer funded compensation scheme targeted at civilian victims of mesothelioma in 2012. The civilian scheme aimed to right an egregious wrong, in that whilst negligence on the part of an employer could be shown by a mesothelioma victim, where the employer was no longer in existence and no employers liability insurance policy as required by law could be identified, there was no mechanism by which compensation for the negligence could be paid. Following the new insurance industry funded scheme, the Diffuse Mesothelioma Payment Scheme 2012, the Royal British Legion argued that it was unfair that civilians could now receive large compensation payments but military personnel exposed to asbestos before 1987 who subsequently contracted mesothelioma remained unable to obtain lump sum compensation, being only entitled to a disablement pension from the government.

Following the campaign led by the Royal British Legion, the UK Government in December 2015 announced a change in the law enabling those military veterans with mesothelioma caused by exposure to asbestos before 1987 to be given the choice as to whether they wished to have a War Disablement Pension or alternatively to receive a newly government funded £140,000 lump sum compensation payment.

This change allowing military veterans exposed to asbestos before 1987 whilst in the armed forces who subsequently contract mesothelioma to claim a lump sum raises however a further significant issue that remains unresolved and is particularly pertinent given the Sea King helicopter alert. This concerns the fact that the December 2015 change introducing lump sum payments only relates to those veterans exposed to asbestos before 1987 who subsequently contract the disease mesothelioma, not any other asbestos related disease. As the law currently stands those who were exposed to asbestos before 1987, and it needs re-emphasising that Sea King helicopters have been in service since 1969, are barred from bringing a claim for compensation for any other condition outside of mesothelioma, and would only be entitled to the disablement pension. Given that Petty Officer Greg Lukes died from kidney cancer, with the official report pointing to asbestos as a contributory factor, it surely cannot be right that military veterans who worked on Sea Kings between 1969 and 1987 simply remain ineligible for lump sum compensation. More than this however, it cannot only be those military personnel exposed to asbestos whilst working on Sea King helicopters who should be fully compensated, all military veterans exposed to asbestos before 1987 whilst in the service of their country and who subsequently develop any asbestos related diseases should be morally entitled to compensation, not just those who have developed mesothelioma. There cannot be any moral justification to arbitrarily differentiate between diseases that have been negligently caused in this way.

Let us hope that the tragic death of Greg Lukes at such a young age will help in getting change to enable all military personnel obtain the necessary protection, health care and justice they deserve.

32% increase in drone related calls made to UK police forces in 2017

Across the 37 police forces who responded to freedom of information requests as to the number of calls they had received from the public concerning drones, a total of 4543 calls were logged in 2017, up from 3449 calls logged by the same forces in 2016. This is an overall 32% increase in calls.

The overall number of actual drone related calls is likely to be higher, as some forces were unable to provide data on the precise number of calls received, with the Metropolitan Police for example, giving only the number of specific crime related incidents logged by them.

Whilst the 32% average increase in calls across the country is substantial, there are wide variations between individual forces. Some forces, such as Derbyshire, Dorset, Gwent and Leicestershire, in fact, reported a decrease in the calls made to them.

As in 2016, the police force with the highest number of drone related calls logged was Sussex, with their calls received increasing from 240 in 2016 to 346 in 2017, almost one a day. The information provided by Sussex Police unfortunately is not detailed enough to be able to identify a clear picture of the precise nature of the calls being made to the Sussex force. One force who do however provide a clear breakdown of the calls received from the public are South Yorkshire Police. They have seen a 117% increase in calls in 2017, going up from 62 in 2016 to 135 calls last year. The largest single category of calls received by South Yorkshire related to drones flying over residential and public property, of which there were 68 calls. Within this type of call, some concerned possible privacy violations, others were noise concerns, whilst others were concerned with drones being used for criminal purposes. Other categories of calls that South Yorkshire Police received included 15 in respect to the theft of drones; 5 relating to drones being flown near schools or in the vicinity of children; and, 23 were made by professional drone flyers who were advising the police of the particular locations they were flying in. The government have been very concerned with the use of drones for flying contraband into prisons, and 6 of the calls made to South Yorkshire related to this problem.

The level of drone related calls made to the police in 2017 is certain to reinforce the government’s belief in the need for additional regulation, and this will indeed be arriving very shortly with a new Bill being introduced in Parliament addressing drone use. The government have already flagged up that the new Bill will include compulsory registration for drones weighing in excess of 250 grams and a requirement that drone flyers take a basic online test to ensure they have an understanding of the law and how to fly their drones safely.

Besides the use of drones to deliver contraband into prisons, the other major concern of the government has been in regards to the level of drone near misses with manned aircraft. Recently it has been claimed that a Russian hobbyist drone flyer was able to get his machine weighing just over 1kg to an altitude of 33000 feet. Whilst recent planned police operations have been successful in apprehending criminals flying contraband into prisons, there remains no reports of any drone pilots responsible for plane near misses being identified.

The increasing number of calls being received by the police nationally could be put down to the simple fact that there are more drones being bought and flown, and as such this increase is reflected in the concerns of the public. One unknown factor is the novelty factor, and some calls are being made simply on the basis that members of the public are not yet used to drone technology.

Drone related calls made by the Public to UK Police forces

Police Force 2016 2017
Avon & Somerset 7 9
British Transport 39 67
Cambridgeshire 71 147
Cleveland 84 89
Cumbria 35 41
Derbyshire 104 89
Devon & Cornwall 110 143
Dorset 155 80
Durham 23 61
Dyfed-Powys 35 54
Gt. Manchester 229 274
Gwent 44 39
Hertfordshire 142 171
Humberside 11 58
Kent 154 202
Lancashire 139 205
Leicestershire 35 32
Lincolnshire 46 93
Merseyside 206 269
Met Police 87 97
Norfolk 118 128
Northamptonshire 76 82
North Wales 3 11
Northumbria 71 111
North Yorkshire 19 19
Nottinghamshire 108 115
PSNI 197 258
South Wales 27 80
South Yorkshire 62 135
Staffordshire 150 193
Suffolk 82 88
Surrey 63 96
Sussex 240 346
Warwickshire 67 91
West Mercia 175 231
West Midlands 121 172
West Yorkshire 114 167
TOTAL 3449 4543

 

 

 

 

UK government drone proposals

The UK government has today ( 22nd July 2017) released its response to the drone public consultation exercise it carried out between December of last year and March of this year, and for the most part it remains very much a work in progress for most of the issues under consideration.

The one big decision that it has announced, which can hardly come as any surprise, is that the government will require drones above 250 grammes in weight to be registered. So why has it reached this decision, and why set it at above 250 grammes? The answers to these questions can be found in fresh research the government commissioned on the potential collision impact of drones hitting manned aircraft. It should be noted that even within a few hours of the research document being released, the way the research was undertaken has already been criticised by some drone users on the basis that unrealistic conditions were used when compared to actual flight scenarios.

That may or may not be true, but the government have clearly set their registration stall out, with plenty of encouragement from the British Airline Pilots Association (BALPA), who were one of the partner organisations in the collision impact research exercise. The results of this research showed that a 400 gramme drone could critically damage a helicopter windscreen and its tail rotor blade. Therefore, the government has chosen to set its registration requirement at machines weighing 250 grammes or more.

In its Consultation Report the government states that a registration scheme will help to improve safety, security and privacy. However, arguably the clear main focus of government attention is safety, and particularly safety in respect to manned aircraft. If the government were equally focussed on privacy for instance, then all drones (how will drones be defined for registration purposes?) no matter what weight, if they include a camera would need to have been registered, as it is perfectly possible to buy a drone under 250 grammes that possesses a decent quality, potentially privacy invasive filming system.

Whilst a registration scheme is to be introduced, there remain several unknowns conected to it. How much will the registration cost and will there be an annual renewal fee? The government have made clear that the drone user will be footing the bill for the running of the registration scheme. It also seems likely, although it has not been explicitly stated, that registration will not take place at the point of sale, when the drone is purchased. Arguably, a more robust registration scheme should be at the point of sale, but this would be burdensome  supposedly for retailers, so it is likely drone users will have to register after purchase.

But then comes another new feature of the government requirements – drone users will have to take a mandatory assessment test in order to at least in part be considered competent/eligible to fly their drone. How this is going to work is at present unclear. The government seem to be pointing to a form of online test to be taken at the same time as registration is made. So it could be that the test has to be successfully completed before registration can be undertaken. The test is described by the government as a basic knowledge of the law and how to fly safely, with the areas covered being safety, security and privacy. The use by the government of the word basic would point to a simple, straightforward awareness of the law test, but then for example when it comes to data protection and privacy law the word basic could arguably point to something a good deal more detailed.

In a move to allay some of the concerns of Model Aircraft Flying Clubs and their members, there is likely to be some exemptions as regards registration and the educational test. This if done correctly could encourage drone flyers or potential flyers to join such clubs.

Most of the other issues raised during the consultation exercise, such as insurance, electronic identification, and changes to the Air Navigation Order Rules and penalties imposed remain open issues for further consideration by the government.

When the registration scheme will become operational is unknown. It will be interesting to see whether following the introduction of the scheme there is a decline in the calls the public make to the police as regards drones, and the level of near misses to manned aircraft declines. Additionally, it will also be of interest to see how the police will deal with complaints they receive following the introduction of the registration scheme. A major problem for the police has been in regards to the level of resources they are prepared to commit to what in most instances they might consider low level offences.

Crucial unanswered questions remain in Amazon’s pre-Christmas UK drone delivery announcement

The fanfare announcement by Amazon that they have recently made their first successful delivery by drone to a customer in the UK, whilst it provided valuable pre-Christmas publicity for Amazon and its Prime Air delivery service, should not be allowed to hide some serious issues concerning the overall viability of large scale drone deliveries and the public acceptance factor of such delivery services.

Amazon claim that this first delivery was achieved within 30 minutes from the purchaser’s click to the package being delivered at their home. A heavily choreographed positive-message video was released showing the delivery being made. Even with this carefully scripted video however it was possible to see obvious pointers to the thorny issues that are likely to be prevalent where drones are used as delivery vehicles. For much of 2016 Amazon have been conducting drone delivery research from an isolated rural location near Cambridge, and the video of the delivery being made on December 7th highlights the rural nature of the general locality, but also contains footage of the drone flying over houses and following the route of a road below it.

Whilst Amazon for the purposes of their Cambridge research have permission from the Civil Aviation Authority to fly drones beyond line of sight of the drone operator, and given the law on trespass and nuisance in respect to aircraft in the UK, it would prove challenging for anyone to bring a successful legal action against Amazon, the fact remains that some people, perhaps many, will not be happy having the airspace above their homes used as a road in the sky. Furthermore, there are safety concerns, including how distracting it may be for drivers to have autonomous drones flying above and across roads? If distraction accidents occur who will be legally responsible? Such issues need addressing, but unfortunately with Amazon’s beyond line of sight drone delivery programme there appears a void.

The Cambridge drone research programme had already earlier in the year attracted some significant criticism from a local group of conservation volunteers, the Friends of the Roman Road and Fleam Dyke, who voiced strong concerns over the impact of drone activity on wildlife and the tranquillity of the area they work to preserve. The voluntary group only became aware of Amazon’s drone delivery programme when they were approached by the media for their comments on the programme.

The Civil Aviation Authority have following an FOI request recently published on their website the email correspondence between themselves and Amazon, going back over two years to 2014 when Amazon first approached the CAA about the possibility of conducting drone delivery research in the UK. Included within that email correspondence is a very telling email dated the 28th July 2014 from an Amazon employee to the CAA, which states that if Amazon do decide to start testing in the UK (which of course they subsequently were allowed to do), that they would discuss further with the CAA how to tackle the issue of public perception.

Unfortunately, other than a somewhat belated invitation to some local Cambridge schoolchildren to visit the Amazon laboratory in Cambridge, there appears to have been no obvious attempt to engage with the wider Cambridge public on the use of drones for delivery purposes, and it may be asked that if Amazon truly envisage drone deliveries to be a viable commercial proposition, whether they have actually taken the view that so long as they are seen as acting within the law, then public perceptions can be left to others to address. If this is the case, then this attitude points to an arrogant corporatist approach, and it does great dis-service to the drone industry as a whole, in which many have been working to engage with the wider public to highlight the value for society of drone technology.