8 August June 2009
Experts criticise plan to fly ‘unsafe’ unmanned craft over West Wales

Martin Shipton
Western Mail

PLANS to fly unmanned aircraft over Wales pose an unacceptable danger to people on the ground, a team of experts said yesterday.

[You can download the report in PDF format here: http://www.bepj.org.uk/wordpress/wp-content/uploads/Consultation-on-an-Airspace-Change-to-Establish-Segregated-Airspace-for-the-Wales-Unmanned-Aircraft-Systems-Issue-1.1-27-July-2009-1.pdf]

The Assembly Government is keen to open up airspace inland from the former RAF station at Aberporth for Unmanned Aerial Vehicles or drones.

UAVs can be used for both military and civilian purposes, but until now large unmanned aircraft in the UK are, except in highly- controlled circumstances, only used over the sea.

But new proposals could see UAVs flying across parts of West and Mid Wales on a regular basis.

Now, three of Britain’s leading experts on the use of UAVs have written a paper that is severely critical of the plan.

Roy Unsworth, Chris Hewitt and Alan Rogers say in response to an Assembly Government consultation that a rogue UAV could crash, potentially killing people on the ground.

Mr Unsworth, who was head of site at the Aberporth missile testing range until it was sold to the Welsh Development Agency in 2003, said: “We have put together our paper because we believe we have a moral responsibility to do so before the proposal goes forward.

“Airworthiness standards are not sufficiently mature for unmanned aircraft to be given certificates of airworthiness to fly over populated areas. UAVs weigh 600kg with their load, and if one crashed there could be devastating consequences.

“The worst case scenario would see a UAV go out of control and eventually come down on a highly populated urban area like Cardiff.”

The report refers to an incident that occurred in 1941, when an unmanned aircraft flown from RAF Aberporth went out of control and crashed into the wall of Aberporth Primary School.

Fortunately the time of impact was 4.30pm, after the children had gone home.

Mr Unsworth said: “After that incident, UAVs no longer flew over land as a matter of course.

“The ideal location from which UAVs could fly would be the former RAF station at Llanbedr in Gwynedd, but that was shut down for cost reasons several years ago. If Llanbedr were still open, Aberporth would not have been considered as suitable for a moment.”

The UAVs that could fly over Wales would be similar to the Watchkeeper unmanned aircraft developed in Israel and allegedly used to attack targets in Gaza.

Plaid Cymru MP Adam Price, over whose Carmarthen East and Dinefwr constituency the unmanned aircraft would fly, said: “The authors of this report are among the foremost experts in this field in Britain, and their concerns must be taken seriously.

“Creating jobs is vitally important for the Welsh economy, but that cannot be done at the expense of public safety.”

An Assembly Government spokesman said: “A consultation has recently taken place over proposals to establish a segregated airspace for use by unmanned air systems flying from Parc Aberporth.

“The consultation included three options, mainly over sparsely populated areas around the existing facility at Aberporth.

“The ‘Airspace Change Process’ is the legal basis by which any change can be made, and public consultation has formed a key part of this process.

“The consultation included representatives from a wide range of professional and technical bodies, including the General Aviation Safety Council, the Guild of Air Traffic Controllers and the British Air Transport Association.

“All comments and feedback from the consultation are currently being evaluated and a feedback report will be published on our website later this year together with a decision on what option – if any – will be taken forward.

“The report will list topics or areas of concern that have been raised and provide the opportunity to clarify or address any outstanding issues.

“Any proposal will then have to be submitted to the Civil Aviation Authority for approval.”

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