All posts by almacblog

About almacblog

I am a law lecturer at the University of Kent.

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

 

 

 

 

Advertisements

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.

 

Negative reporting on drones used for prison contraband smuggling ignores key underlying issue.

The recent spate of media reports on drones being used to smuggle contraband into prisons in the UK has again focussed a negative light on drones and how they are used. In instances such as the smuggling of contraband it may be argued that although drones are the conduit being used for such nefarious purposes, the real central underlying issue is the serious drug problems faced by prison authorities. Despite this however, the central focus of most media reports are the use of drones. A significant recent example of this can be seen with the report into the death of Acacia Smith in London, who was killed when the car she was travelling in crashed whilst it was being followed by police who had been alerted to a drone being possibly flown near Wandsworth Prison. The Independent’s headline for their story was, ‘London woman dies in possibly the first drone-related accidental death.’ Whilst the official investigation is still ongoing, the police have said that they followed a car seen leaving the area when they arrived which was subsequently involved in a high speed collision. It may be asked how this can be said to be a drone related death? The drone itself seems to have played no direct part in the death of Acacia Smith, as it appears that the crash is likely to have resulted from the occupants not wishing to be apprehended following attempts to deliver contraband into the prison, but for the Independent the drone is the central focus of their report.

The first UK conviction for delivering and conspiring to deliver contraband into a prison via a drone, came in July this year when Daniel Kelly received a 14 month prison sentence, after admitting the charges following data being obtained from a SIM card taken from a drone found in his car showed he had made eight flights to six different prisons. It is important to understand however that the offences for which Kelly pleaded guilty were not specifically drone related under the applicable legislation, rather under the Prison Act 1952 as amended by the Offender Management Act 2007, they concerned the smuggling of illicit contraband into prisons however it may have been undertaken.

The latest official figures for drugs being found in prisons in England and Wales show that in 2014 there were 5973 such incidents, the highest number on record. Drones have clearly offered a new and effective way for contraband to be smuggled into prisons, and official figures show that from there being no known incidents of drone prison smuggling in 2013, in 2015 there were 33 identified incidents.

With the growing number of instances of drones being used to transport contraband into prisons, the Metropolitan Police in London recently undertook a 3 day exercise code-named Operation Airborne, which focussed on preventing drones being used around Pentonville prison in London. Whilst no individuals were apprehended during the Operation, it did lead to two drones being recovered. One of the two drones was found after it had crashed and the other due to the weight of the contraband it was carrying flew so low that a police officer was actually able to grab hold of it. At least one of the two drones has been reported as being a DJI Phantom 4, which are currently retailing for around a £1000.

Drone crash met operation airborne

drone met operation

Worryingly for prison authorities and the police clearly criminals see it as potentially cost effective to use such expensive machines, which points to the scale of the problems regarding drugs and other contraband such as mobile phones faced by the authorities.

The need to be able to identify those who are flying drones is clear, but in the case of those wishing to furtively transport contraband into prisons they are of course unlikely to acquiesce in any form of identification mechanism that is introduced by the regulatory authorities, although it can be envisaged that any technical identification included within the machine itself may make anonymization more challenging.

Drone technology has opened up an effective mechanism by which contraband may be smuggled into prisons and this must obviously be addressed, but the central issue for the authorities remains the demand led factors for specific types of contraband that are prevalent throughout the prison system in this country, and the current focus of the media on drones used to transport contraband fails to provide the necessary appropriately balanced and informative coverage of this central issue.

 

Action Mesothelioma Day – The 5000 deaths that go unreported

Every year the first friday of July see’s Action Mesothelioma Day in the UK, where events take place across the country to both raise awareness of the scourge of asbestos and to commemorate and remember those who have succumbed to the individious diseases caused by exposure to asbestos.

Raising awareness of asbestos and the issues surrounding the legacy of 100 years or so of its widespread use in this country has always been challenging for victims and campaigners. This year perhaps more than ever before, with Brexit and the continuing fall-out politically and economically of the referendum, and England’s latest footballing disaster holding the nation’s attention, Action Mesothelioma Day and its important messages will at best receive the odd cursory line here and there in the media. But those messages of life and death have an importance deserving of the nation’s attention. With around 2,500 people dying this year from mesothelioma, and a further 2,500 succumbing to other asbestos related diseases, the paucity of attention given to Action Mesothelioma Day is shameful.

With such human carnage, we need also look to see how our Government has responded to the plight of the innocent victims of asbestos, and the protection of its citizens from exposure to asbestos that remains in situ across the country, especially in our schools. This Government has been strong on concerning words, but arguably limited and even contradictory in its actions.

On a positive note this year, the Government announced that it will use £5 million from the fines it is levying on banks that has been earmarked as part of the Military Covenant, to fund a mesothelioma research centre for the next three to four years. Whilst asbestos campaigners have long argued that there needs to be meaningful research funds made available for asbestos related diseases, it is perhaps instructive that this move by the Government only came about through links to the Military Covenant. Although the funding is to be welcomed, it is in reality inadequate given that it is £5 million over three to four years, arguably representing a minimalist approach, but of course the Government will undoubtedly seek to refer to it time and again to show how they have listened and taken action.

A further positive move, again linked to the Military Covenant, was the announcement that ex-military personnel who have contracted mesothelioma from exposure to asbestos whilst in the armed services and who until now were not eligible for lump sum compensation, will now be entitled to £140,000. It is disappointing however that this compensation has so far not been made available to those ex-military personnel who have suffered other asbestos related diseases.

Thus the Government can refer to two positive moves it has made recently whenever the topic of asbestos is raised with them. But what you will not hear about are instances where the Government actually seek to act to the detriment of asbestos victims and their families. It is bad enough their inaction, such as not appropriately addressing asbestos in schools, but when they positively act in a detrimental way, this needs highlighting to ensure hypocritical claims of concern that they continue to espouse are placed into the appropriate context. It is highly symbolic that in the very week of Action Mesothelioma Day this year we have been provided with such an example. Cyril Hollow, worked for 20 years as a decorator in the Royal Navy dockyard at Devonport. He was negligently exposed to asbestos by his employer, the Government, and died in 2010 of lung cancer. His family brought a legal action against his employer, the Department for Communities and Local Government, and in Exeter County Court in 2014 following the admittance of negligence by the Government the central issue was that of contributory negligence, and how much the damages to be awarded should be reduced due to Mr Hollow’s smoking habit. The Government argued the damages should be reduced by between 85 and 90%. In the event the judge decided that a fair and equitable reduction should be 30% and damages of £80,000 were awarded instead of over £100,000 that would have been awarded without the contributory negligence.

A major issue has been how asbestos and smoking interact in causing lung cancer, and because of the lack of research into asbestos diseases, much remains unknown as to the precise interaction, with experts widely disagreeing as a consequence. The 30% reduction due to Mr Hollow’s contributory negligence was in fact a far higher reduction than in two previous asbestos lung cancer cases where smoking was an issue. In the case of Badger v MOD (2005) a reduction of 20% was made, and in Shortell v BICAL (2008) the reduction was 15%. In Mr Hollow’s case the Government were however not content with the 30% reduction, and in the week of Action Mesothelioma Day, Lord Justice Tomlinson in the Court of Appeal has granted a request by the Government for a full appeal to be heard on the issue of the level of contributory negligence.

Whilst Mr Hollow may not have been a member of the armed services, he served his country by working in the Devonport dockyard, and yet the Government wish to decimate the compensation they have to pay for his death. The country may not hear much about Action Mesothelioma Day, but those attending the various events will have had in their thoughts Mr Hollow and the thousands of other victims of asbestos.

UK drone near misses on course to more than double this year

 

With the continuing growth of drone technology usage one of the major concerns surrounding such increased usage has been that of near misses between drones and manned aircraft. This has recently received substantial publicity, with understandably the major fear being that a collision might in a worst case scenario lead to a manned aircraft being brought down.

The likelihood of this concern involving drones coming into conflict with manned aircraft receding appears extremely unlikely in the short term given the most recent information on near misses over UK skies. The latest data from the UK Airprox Board, the organisation which investigates near misses between aircraft in UK skies, shows that with less than half the year gone the number of reported near misses involving drones currently stands at 26, just 3 short of the 29 near misses reported in the whole of 2015. This points to the strong possibility of reported drone near misses doubling in comparison to last year.

The Airprox Board drone near miss database has the most recent near miss occurring on the 21st May, so it is reasonable to assume June reports have yet to be added to the database. By the end of May 2015 there had been a total of 7 reported near misses, with the remaining 22 occurring from June onwards. If that pattern were to be repeated this year then rather than the near misses doubling, we could see them in fact quadrupling.

The recently released full details of the Airprox Board’s April meeting which investigated 7 drone near misses occurring in February and March, shows that 3 of the 7, were classified by the Board as Category A, the highest risk category. As with all previous investigated near misses involving drones, none of the drone pilots could be identified. Full details of the Airprox Board’s May meeting have yet to be released, although some details are available on the Board’s drone database. This shows that at May’s meeting a further 8 near misses were looked into, and 4 of these were recorded as Category A.

The continuing inability of the authorities to identify drones flying in close proximity to manned aircraft is clearly one of the key reasons why the numbers of such incidents continue to grow. The government were very keen to emphasise that the recent report instigated by the police on Twitter that a drone had actually hit a BA aircraft was likely to have been false; the reason being, the media frenzy that ensued was such that if the report had been found to be correct the pressure on the government to act could have become overwhelming and led to them introducing regulations that they would fear could impact on the development of drone technology and usage. The UK government will be including in a new Transport Act of Parliament new rules relating to drone use, but no doubt these will be measured; they do not want to be pressured into what they and commercial drone operators may consider as burdensome regulation.

 

Are the dangers from drones for manned aircraft exaggerated, and should we be more concerned with other dangers such as lasers?

The latest UK Airprox Board investigations into aircraft near misses in UK airspace have again contained a number of cases involving drones, which continues to highlight the major concern surrounding drones to the safety of manned aircraft.

With the addition of these latest Airprox Board investigations there have been a total of 28 reported near misses between drones and manned aircraft for 2015. Of these 28 near misses 13 were rated by the investigators as Category A incidents, the highest level of risk category. To put these 28 near misses into context, the Airprox Board have in their near miss investigations for 2015 reviewed a total of 197 cases involving all aircraft. In all of the 28 drone related cases, the drone pilot could not be identified, and therefore not a single prosecution has been brought relating to these incidents.

Outside of the identified near miss situations, the Civil Aviation Authority and the regional Police forces in the UK have been receiving increasing numbers of drone related complaints. However, further highlighting the challenges involved in identifying those flying drones where they are being misused, there were only 3 reported convictions of drone pilots in 2015 in the UK.

In the United States, the aviation regulatory body, the FAA, have been reporting hundreds of near misses between drones and manned aircraft per month, heightening the overall fears surrounding drone activity in the U.S. The extent of the problem has however been challenged by the Academy of Model Aeronautics, who in analysing the data produced by the FAA, believe that the true number of actual near misses is far smaller, with the bulk of the cases actually being reports of sightings of drones in general, unrelated to near miss situations.

A central fear surrounding drones flying in proximity to manned aircraft are that they may be sucked into a plane’s engine leading in a worst case scenario to the plane being brought down. Of course the natural phenomenon of birds flying in conflict with aircrafts has always been a safety concern. New research carried out by Eli Dourado and Samuel Hammond at the George Mason University has via their investigation of the official data of bird strikes on planes in U.S. airspace sought to provide a statistical analysis of the potential level of risk posed by drones weighing up to 2 kg have for manned aircraft. Whilst the researchers recognised that their work in using bird strikes on aircraft does obviously have some potential weaknesses, such as the composition of birds in contrast to drones, they found that within the parameters of their study there was given the 1 million drones being flown in the United States, a likelihood of a damaging drone strike on a manned aircraft occurring no more than every 1.87 million years of 2kg drone flight time. Furthermore, they estimated that where a collision occurs, actual injury or death to someone aboard the manned aircraft would happen once every 187 million years of operation. This they concluded was an acceptable level of risk.

If Dourado and Hammond are correct, and of course there needs to be definitive research carried out utilising simulated situations where drones are flown into aircraft engines in order to further help in such an assessment, then as regards the safety of manned aircraft, at present it might be argued that a greater potential hazard which appears far less reported on than drones, has been the proliferation of laser pen shining incidents, where powerful laser beams have been shone onto aircraft, potentially blinding pilots. The official data from the CAA shows that for 2015, up to the end of September 2015, there were a total of 882 reported laser incidents.

As regards the regulatory criteria, Air Navigation Order (ANO) Article 222 provides that a person must not shine a light on an aircraft in flight that may dazzle or distract the pilot. Added to this Article, ANO Article 137 further provides that a person must not recklessly endanger an aircraft. In October 2015, a Cardiff man was sentenced to 6 months imprisonment for shining a green laser at 3 aircraft and a police helicopter that endangered the aircraft. The following month in November, a British Airways pilot had his retina damaged when a laser was shone at him whilst landing his plane at Heathrow. The General Secretary of the British Airline Pilots Association, Jim McAuslan, has called for laser pens to be reclassified as offensive weapons.

Lasers of course are used in many ways, and it has been reported that the United States are developing a drone weapon that will possess a laser powerful enough to shoot down missiles. Previous attempts by the U.S. military to develop such a weapon for use via a manned aircraft ended in failure.

However, the notion of incorporating a laser within the payload of a drone raises the serious question of how long it may be before we hear reports of lasers being shone at civil aircraft from drones? The linkage of lasers and drones would appear to significantly raise the potential overall threat level to manned aircraft. There can be no doubt that it takes limited technical skill to attach a workable laser to a drone as can be easily seen on YouTube.

Globally, regulators are still struggling to get to grips with how to effectively control drone misuse. The identification of drones and their pilots is a paramount requirement for effective enforcement, but when we add potential malicious use such as lasers via a drone platform, effective means of identification of those who will of course not wish to be identified becomes even more challenging.