11 December 2012
The Royal Navy has begun to trial a drone that could be launched from most of its bigger vessels and used for surveillance operations.
The first flight of the small tactical Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV) was successful and the navy will now continue to test the remote controlled aircraft to see it could be used for a range of purposes.
With a long range and ability to stay in the air for hours, drones could be used to cover vast expanses of sea – such as monitoring for pirates off the coast of Somalia. But the Ministry of Defence said it was too early to say what the aircraft might be used for. "The first test flight took place on Monday. We are at the very early stages of working out whether this is something the navy would want," said a source.
The disclosure came during a debate about UAVs at Westminster Hall in which MPs spoke about the increased use of drones and whether the military needed to codify when and where they would be deployed. Philip Dunne, the defence minister, rejected a Labour proposal for a code but went on to reveal that surveillance UAVs were being tested by the navy.
"We are about to embark on a concept of use demonstration trial to see whether for surveillance purposes a maritime system could be deployed in the future. It is not presently anything past a demonstration phase. I think it is perhaps not a surprise that we are thinking of some trialling, some capability for future use," Dunne said. It would be "for the Royal Navy to decide if they decide to procure a system in due course".
His remarks raises the likelihood that the navy's two new Queen Elizabeth aircraft carriers, due in service at the end of the decade, will carry UAVs, as well as the joint strike fighter. Dunne said that drones would become more advanced, but added the government had no intention of developing systems that did not require some form of human control.
Kevan Jones, the shadow defence minister, said Labour was fully supportive of the technology, but said public concerns about drones could be allayed if there use was properly codified.
"A new code is not a suggestion that there is not a rule book already, but rather than we must clarify the rules given the significance and spread of the technology," he said.
"Whether valid or not there is a public perception that unmanned technology is shrouded in secrecy, which increases the potential for its demonisation. Being open about usage and codifying our policy would help confront this, and would increase accountability and transparency in the system."
Dunne appeared to reject the idea. "I don't accept the need to undertake a codification of separate rules for UAV systems. All aircraft operators must follow national and international laws and rules of engagement and these rules are the same whether it be an air, sea or land-based platform. We have well-established command, control and supervisory frameworks for all of our operational assets so we don't believe at this point are needed for UAV assets.
"I think there is a greater role to be played by politicians, by the military, in explaining to the public the utility both from a military perspective and from a safety perspective for our own personnel, which is obviously vital. I think we do as a government need to do more."
At the moment, the UK only uses armed drones in Afghanistan, but the RAF believes that up to one third of its aircraft could be UAVs within 20 years.
Philip Hammond, the defence secretary, said last week that UAVs could be
to replace the Nimrod surveillance aircraft that patrolled the UK coast.
In September, the Guardian revealed that the navy was
looking to deploy a new range of maritime drones.