11 August 2012
Unmanned spy drones could patrol Britain’s shores looking for illegal immigrants and smugglers after a series of high-level meetings in Brussels, The Mail on Sunday has learned.
The European Commission aims to spend £260 million on its ‘Eurosur’ project, which includes a plan for surveillance drones to patrol the Mediterranean coast.
At the same time, several schemes are under way in Britain, aiming to develop civilian roles for aircraft based on the killer drones hunting Al Qaeda terrorists in Afghanistan and Pakistan.
If the high-tech measures against terrorists, illegal immigrants and smugglers in the Mediterranean are successful, there would be pressure on the UK to follow suit.
Surveillance planes with military-grade cameras would be more effective at monitoring the coastline than satellites or standard planes.
British defence firms are testing sophisticated ‘sense and avoid’ systems on unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) over the Irish Sea and some experts believe European civilian airspace could soon see drones flying alongside other aircraft.
Meanwhile Kent Police are working on a £3 million project with partners in the UK, France and the Netherlands to explore the use of unmanned aircraft to patrol its coastline and the English Channel.
A spokesman said the likely targets would include ‘organised criminals, such as people-smugglers’.
Eurosur, which is about to go before the European Parliament, involves small drones being deployed along the Mediterranean coastline, and is a response to the large numbers of illegal immigrants crossing from North Africa in small boats.
The umbrella body for EC border agencies, Frontex, which came up with the idea, has hosted demonstrations by defence companies for member states to show them the range of drones available.
One of the craft, the Spanish-built Fulmar, has a 10ft wingspan, cruises at 60mph and can stay up for eight hours. The larger Israeli-manufactured Heron is 26ft long and can fly for 52 hours at 35,000ft.
Both can carry infrared sensors and sophisticated video cameras which send a live feed back to a remote pilot at a ground station.
Frontex spokesman Edgar Beugels said UAVs may be suited to patrolling borders. He added: ‘There has been some interest in these from member states for border-surveillance purposes. At the moment we are holding demonstrations to see if these aircraft are a viable tool for border surveillance.
‘They give advantages as far as the possibility of hanging around in a particular area is concerned, possibly for as long as 12 hours, which is much better than a conventional aircraft.’
The biggest obstacle to the operation of large civilian drones is the risk of collision with other aircraft, but Mr Beugels said: ‘I would imagine that in the not-too-distant future there will be a legal framework in place in Europe to allow these aircraft in unrestricted airspace.’
The EC wants to set up the network, which includes using satellites, by next year, so only small drones will be used at first. Current regulations mean the operator must maintain visual contact with the aircraft and keep it within 1,500ft horizontally and 400ft vertically of himself.
In Brussels earlier this year, defence contractors met EC officials hosted by the European Defence Agency as they tried to forge plans allowing drones and manned aircraft to fly side by side.
Separately, in one of the world’s most advanced trials of UAVs, BAE Systems has teamed up with British firms Cobham, Rolls-Royce and QinetiQ, along with German company Cassidian and French-owned Thales UK, to develop a £62 million part-government-funded project called Astraea. A spokesman for BAE said: ‘It’s important to be able to safely open up UK airspace for these kinds of flights as there are many civilian applications.
‘We are very aware that the idea of “robot planes” flying in the sky can cause people to be alarmed, but the fact is that sense-and-detect technology designed to keep them safely away from other aircraft is currently being proved.’
Lambert Dopping-Hepenstal, Astraea’s programme director, said the specially converted Jetstream aircraft being tested over the Irish Sea can detect and avoid other aircraft as easily as a piloted plane.
He was confident regulators would give UAVs the green light sooner rather than later. ‘We might see some experimental uses of UAVs by perhaps 2015, for example on coastguard patrol,’ he said.
Privacy campaigner Nick Pickles, director of Big Brother Watch, believes that border surveillance drones may not be far off.
‘Border control is one of the biggest pressure points. We’re seeing an increasing demand to stick a drone in the air because it’s cheaper than a helicopter.
‘The danger is that we all end up being watched, but if something happens there’s no one there to help you because they’re all manning the controls.’
We can lead the world in an aerial revolution if we banish our fear of 'robots running amok', says Michael Brooks
The idea of unmanned drones humming around us, gathering our data, identifying us through photo-recognition and making their own decisions about whether to fire missiles, sounds like a dystopian vision of the future.
In reality, the creation of autonomous robots is still a long way off, if it ever were to happen. The scenario imagined by so many Hollywood films, in which they could become uncontrollable killing machines, is simply the stuff of science fiction.
Yet the potential use of unmanned drones in Britain is growing increasingly likely. It is inevitable that Britain will want to use technology to protect its borders.
Any such plans would undoubtedly be met with hand-wringing from those who worry about breaches of civil liberties. Indeed, human rights lawyers have already warned of litigation against the Government.
But Britain should press ahead with its use of drones in warfare. Indeed, not just in warfare – unmanned technology has many applications, is big business and can only benefit our economy.
In war, there has only ever been the well-equipped and the less well-equipped. Those who refuse to get on board with technology end up on the losing side of any battle. Robots are nothing to fear. This technology is an industry that Britain’s economy could do with leading.
The US Defence Department is putting out billion-dollar purchase orders for unmanned technology. A decade ago, less than five per cent of the US military’s aircraft were unmanned. Now more than 40 per cent fly without pilots on board.
The few small companies selling kits, parts and accessories for private, amateur hobby drones in the UK are doing very well. We need to make sure that British companies profit on the large-scale applications, too.
There will be no shortage of takers because the applications – and thus future markets – are limited only by the imagination. Drones can dust crops with pesticides, monitor atmospheric pollution, patrol for forest fires and carry out aerial land surveys.
Photographers are looking to use drones equipped with cameras to provide them with a whole a new angle on their profession.
Civilian drones have plenty to offer governments, too. In America, US Customs has been flying drones over mountainous or desert regions where human-traffickers and drug-smugglers operate with impunity.
Police-operated drones flying above our cities will enrage those who complain about Britain’s wide CCTV coverage.
But most of us understand that when someone goes missing, it is a benefit to have cameras to capture their last recorded movements.
Drone technology already saves lives. We send drones in to inspect the state of nuclear power stations, and the US military lent drones to search-and-rescue teams looking for survivors after the Haiti earthquake.
But there are hurdles to overcome.
There have been concerns over the high crash rate of military drones and critics warn of a future where drones are dropping from the sky several times a day. But these problems are being ironed out.
The accident rate for drones is already lower than that for small, single-engined private aircraft.
Another problem is the potential for collisions. Before drones fill our skies, they will have to be equipped with avoidance systems to minimise the possibility of accidents.
Britain would do well to capitalise on the rising interest in drones, not bow to the worrywarts and squander the chance to lead the world in this new aerial revolution.
Michael Brooks is a New Scientist consultant
and author of The Secret Anarchy Of Science.