26 January 2013
More than 130 organisations have been given leave to fly unmanned drones in the skies over the UK, it has emerged.
Scores of private firms and government bodies have been granted permission to fly small UAVs (unmanned aerial vehicles) in British airspace, to the alarm of privacy campaigners who are calling for an urgent review of regulations surrounding the technology.
Police forces, fire services and defence firms appear on a list of bodies granted permission to fly the vehicles by the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA), as does the BBC, the National Grid, and even a marketing company that is using a drone to create promotional videos for golf courses.
UAV technology can be used for a variety of purposes; from scientific research and conservation, to surveillance and armed attacks.
The CAA has granted permission to fly small drones over 160 times when multiple or expired licences are taken into account.
Defence companies BAE Systems, Qinetiq and missile manufacturer MBDA all appear on the authority's list.
Forensic and crime scene science specialists GWR & Associates are also using the vehicles, which are either controlled by 'pilots' on the ground, or are pre-programmed to complete set tasks.
Police forces in Merseyside, Staffordshire and Essex have also been granted permission to fly drones, as have fire services in Dorset, Hampshire and the West Midlands.
Video Golf Marketing has started using a UAV to create promotional videos for golf courses around the country.
Eric King, head of research at campaign group Privacy International, told the Guardian the increasing use of drones by private and public organisations posed a 'unique' set of problems.
He said the CAA needed to consider more than just health and safety issues when deciding whether to grant a licence to operate drone technology.
'We need new regulation to ensure privacy and other civil liberties are also being taken into account during the decision-making process,' he said.
The Unmanned Aerial Vehicle Systems Association said the use of drones would continue to increase.
General secretary John Moreland, who said the vehicles can operate anywhere in the UK 'within reason', said the technology was becoming less expensive and simpler to use all the time.
He said the drones sometimes sinister reputation would diminish once members of the public became accustomed to seeing them flying overhead.
Anybody who wants to fly a small UAV in UK airspace must seek permission from the CAA. The aircraft must weigh no more than 20kg, and must not fly any higher than 122 metres.
Operators must also ensure they do not fly the drones further than 500 metres away from themselves.
Chris Cole, founder of the Drone Wars UK website, warned of the potential
impact on privacy and civil liberties should the use of drones become 'routine'.