Tag Archives: Drones

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.

 

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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The eagle has landed – a bald drone story or an important pointer on drone control?

The recent story that the Metropolitan Police are considering trialling/ will use (depending on the source read) eagles to control miscreant drone use raises some important and interesting questions over civil drone use policy in the UK.

I have to admit when I read the story of eagles being used to capture drones I had to do a quick check on the date to make sure it was not April 1st. But the video released alongside the story clearly shows that an eagle can be trained to catch a small drone and bring it back down to earth without injuring itself, although whether that would be possible to do so safely outside of controlled conditions, with larger machines is questionable.

The fact that the Metropolitan Police are willing to consider such a possibility highlights a very serious message – as things stand it is not possible to adequately prevent drone misuse, and as such anything will be considered.

There continues to be a lot of talk about the need for more drone regulation. But on what basis can more regulation be justified when it appears so difficult to enforce existing regulations?

So we need to ask in reality if there a problem and what is the extent of it if there is, and can new regulations play any meaningful part in alleviating drone related problems? One of the big fears surrounding drone use is they could bring down a manned aircraft if a drone gets sucked into an aircraft engine. The Airprox Board which investigates near misses between aircraft in UK skies, has released reports of 19 near misses between drones and manned aircraft in 2015. In all 19 cases it was not possible to identify the pilot of the drone. One of the near misses occurred on the 22nd September when a Boeing 777 which had taken off from Heathrow Airport and was flying at 2000 feet over the Houses of Parliament had a drone fly within 25 metres of it. The investigation found that avoidance action by the plane had not been possible and the risk of collision between the Boeing and drone was high.

Another major area of concern relates to the surveillance potential that is made possible via drone technology use. Whilst we have applicable data protection and privacy laws, again there is this problematic question of enforcement.

It is important however to recognise that surveillance can be used in both negative and positive ways. It may be visualised that the recent floods in Northern England and Scotland provided an ideal type of situation by which the benefits of drone technology might be clearly seen, by for example enabling the identification of those in peril more quickly, assessing the impact on key infrastructure, and the possibility of flying rapid emergency supplies to those cut off.

Recently published research by a team from the University of Zurich has looked into ways that drones may be used in a cheap and effective way to help in the search and rescue of missing people, as in the forests and mountains of Switzerland around a thousand people annually go missing. The researchers have developed artificial intelligence that enables drones to automatically identify and follow man made trails. Whilst this work may save lives, it is of course a short journey to envisage how such technological developments could be used in a negative, subversive way, both by governments and criminals.

The UK Government who are currently consulting on the civil use of drones in order to develop future policy, are acutely aware of the risk of over burdening the developing civil drone industry with additional regulations. The U.S. and Ireland have both chosen as part of their drone control strategies to go down the registration route, but this by itself cannot directly identify drone misuse. Whilst eagle trainers may hope they can play a part in drone control, technology is going to be the real bird of prey in this respect, and if there are to be new regulations then a possible development may be in the provision of legally binding requirements on drone manufacturers to include control technologies within their products; so for example the inclusion of technology that enables an external identification of the drone to be achievable, and blocking technology preventing the drone from flying in unauthorised airspace as part of the software of the machine.

 

Sunday Times drone jamming report raises interesting issues

Today’s report in the Sunday Times that jamming equipment is being installed to prevent drones flying over sensitive sites should come as no surprise. My understanding is that at least one Premiership football club have been using jamming technology for some time to prevent drones flying over their ground.

It does raise some interesting questions. Outside of the security services jamming of radio signals, such jamming is illegal under the Wireless Telegraphy Act 2006, so there is the issue of ensuring that any blocking of signals is being carried out legally. The scope of the blocking is a further matter of concern. There is it seems the strong likelihood that radio signals will be affected outside of the immediate zone of protection. Whilst the jamming technology may be set to block signals on the commonly used frequencies for drone flying, what of drones being flown outside of those frequencies?

A further question is if jamming technology is blocking the signal to a drone, what will happen to the drone? Will it just fall to the ground, potentially causing injury?  So who would be liable?

 

 

 

The ‘alleged’ rogue Lincoln drone pilot

Lincolnshire Police put out a request this week for information on a drone pilot suspected of flying his drone in violation of the Air Navigation Order Rules whilst filming many of the landmark sites in Lincoln, including Lincoln Cathedral and the University of Lincoln.

The BBC news website picked up on the request, running a  story. The regional BBC news programme Look North also ran a story, in which I gave a short interview on drone regulations.

The ‘alleged’ rogue pilot had put his video footage on YouTube and apparently Lincolnshire Police were made aware of the footage, leading to their request for information as to the identity of the drone pilot. Of course until anyone is actually convicted of an offence under the Air Navigation Order Rules, it will remain an alleged violation of those Rules. But clearly Lincolnshire Police have strong reason to believe that the drone pilot was not commercially licensed by the CAA and from the footage appeared to be in violation of the Rules. Amazingly, if this turns out to be in breach of the Rules, the drone pilot at the start of the video actually filmed themselves.

Given the recent publicity in the UK on drone flying and the applicable rules, and the conviction of several drone pilots which has led to fines in excess of a thousand pounds, it is quite telling that someone should film themselves and then post the footage of the whole flight on YouTube. If they are breaching the applicable Rules, either they are someone who simply does not care, or they have no appreciable understanding of the Rules, which could suggest that a major rethink is urgently required on how to get the information out to the Public on what is acceptable flying and what is not.