Royal Aeronautical Society lecture: the work of the APPG on Drones at the “Unmanned Aviation: Challenges for growth” conference.

It’s fair to say I got a mixed reception for today’s talk on the work of the APPG on drones and the challenges as I saw them from a policy maker’s perspective. I was speaking at an event for the Aerospace industry – many of the companies present manufacture components that go into Unmanned Aerial Systems.

A number of participants at the conference were concerned about the use of the word “drone” as they thought it was a loaded term. One participant, a Scottish lawyer said that “he’d heard about our ridiculously biased group and had now had it confirmed from the horse’s mouth”! I invited him to come and address us but he didn’t seem wildly keen to take up the offer.

Despite the vote of no confidence from the lawyer, I think most delegates seemed to appreciate the time my team and I had taken to write the lecture and, I think, found the issues I raised of interest.

The manufacturers who were developing civilian-use “drone” technology were particularly concerned that their important progress in R&D did not get missed in the debate about the military context. One questioner was concerned that Parliament was not fully aware of the growth potential of this industrial sector. Another suggested that I should have included reference to the fact that Drones in combat zones save the lives of UK Service personnel. I thought the question a bit below the belt but hope I gave a dignified answer.

Anyway, I’d be interested in your thoughts on the speech, which is here:

First, let me begin by extending my thanks to the Royal Aeronautical Society and particularly John Moreland for the invitation to speak here today as Chair of the All Party Parliamentary Group on drones (APPG).

So, where did my interest in drones come from?

I set up the group because as a former Defence minister I could see both the opportunities for UK industry but also the huge pitfalls of a technology that has the potential to test the our current framework of national and international laws and regulations to destruction. And candidly, having been in Parliament for 12 years now, I had a hunch that if we didn’t shake the tree a little then the procurement of these technologies would race ahead before public policy had a time to adequately consider the pros and cons.  Looking down the list of the attendees here today, if I could sum up in one sentence how we wish you to view us, it’s this: We want to be critical friends and in return we want you to tell us how to help shape future legislation, regulation and public understanding of this important industrial sector.

APPG Background

Now before I start to go into detail about the work of the Group, I should make a quick comment on our name.  I know there will be some in the audience who object to the use of the word “drone”.  However, we should be clear that the APPG does not attach any pejorative meaning to the word.  Rather, using “drone” instead of the industry terms of unmanned aerial system or remotely piloted system makes the point that we are neither producers or users of drones.  Further, it enables us to keep our options wide, to consider the use of unmanned aerial and maritime systems.  It is also more accessible than some of the more technical terms.

I should also make it clear that the APPG is not opposed to drone technology.

Let me set out purpose APPG’s serve.  Firstly, anyone in Parliament can start an APPG, on any subject.  They exist as an important tool, to develop balanced and informed debate on key issues, and influence policy development.  However, they have no official status within Parliament and are not accorded any powers or funding by it.  To conform to the rules set out by the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards, APPG’s must be cross-party and cross-House, with at least 20 registered members and a minimum number of officers, who are annually elected.  The Group currently has five Officers, 20 official members, a range of non-registered MPs and Lords members, and 10 civil society organisation partners.  It is staffed by a human rights researcher.  The Group is funded by a range of charitable trusts.  It is bound by the rules set out in the Register for All Party Parliamentary Groups, and by the financial reporting requirements of its funders.

The impetus for the Group grew out of a growing concern that drone use had been steadily increasing in the last five years and that the traditional legal frameworks which govern this use, for example, prohibiting targeted killings, were being ignored.  The Group started its work in October 2012.  Its primary aim is to educate Parliamentarians to improve the political and public debate on drone technology and contribute to better policy-making.   It also seeks to increase the Government’s transparency and accountability on drones, using Parliamentary mechanisms such as questions in the House, Early Day Motions and submissions to Parliamentary Committees.

Challenging public perceptions

As I am sure you are aware, the public perception and knowledge of drones is often grossly inaccurate.  The domestic, civil use of drones is particularly victim of this.  For example, you will notice that often stories about this aspect of drone use features a picture of an armed military drone, more usually found at the airfield in Kandahar, rather than loitering over Surrey.

However, the Government’s lack of transparency about how it is using drones internationally, has also led to confusion.  A public opinion survey produced by the University of Surrey and You Gov asked whether respondents supported or opposed the killing of “known terrorists” using drones.  Now unfortunately, this is a very misleading construct – we do not know the identities of all of those killed in drone strikes, either by the UK or the United States.  Indeed, we don’t always know if those killed are in fact terrorists so this aspect of the research is predicated on a hypothetical.  Of greater concern though is how the media coverage of this survey perpetuated this myth that Governments know who they are killing.

That said, this survey is useful for assessing some broader aspects of the British public’s understanding of drones.  For example, highlighting the neat, and virtually equal, division between those who believe that drone strikes are making the West safer and those who believe it is making it less safe.  Clearly, the Government has yet to make a convincing case to the public as to the efficacy of drones in national security terms.  It points to concerns that the public is not fully convinced that the use of this low-cost, “low risk” option is appropriate for UK interventions overseas.

There is still a debate to be had about the ethics of intervention solely using drone strikes.

Where does the UK stand on intervention when there is no risk at all to any of our troops?

This is an ethical debate that is way behind the advances in technology in this case.

The problems with the public debate are highlighted in Ulrike Franke’s paper on media misrepresentations of UAVs.  For example, she shows how the media furthers the perception that drones are mainly used for targeted killings i.e. used in a military context.  The reality is that there are only three states with armed drones: United States, UK and Israel. The vast majority of drones are used for civilian purposes.  That is not to say that the impact of the military use is not significant, especially when one considers the very high numbers of civilians killed.  But that the true picture of global drone use is actually quite different.

The APPG’s concern is that this media confusion, domestically and internationally, is undermining the ability for the public to effectively participate in the broader debate on drones.  Similarly, an ill-informed public is hard pressed to hold Government (and their elected representatives) to account on this issue.  Part of the APPG’s role, is to challenge these myths and use its position in Parliament to encourage greater Government transparency.

So what are the strands of the APPG’s work?

Firstly, the use of drones internationally by the UK.

The Group looks at the UK’s acquisition and deployment of drones in Afghanistan and elsewhere, including operations in Iraq and Libya.  In the context of Afghanistan, there seemed to be very limited publicly available information on the policies and decision-making which accompanied the deployment of drones.  This lack of transparency means it is difficult to understand what the rules of engagement are for the deployment of drones, and how this differs, if at all to the rules of engagement for fast-jet strikes in these areas.

Let’s take for example, the issue of casualty counting.

The APPG’s research has shown that the recording of information relating to those killed and injured by UK drone strikes in Afghanistan is notable in its paucity.  Responses to Parliamentary Questions have revealed that

“the Government does not record total figures for civilian casualties in Afghanistan because of the immense difficulty and risks that would be involved in collecting robust data.”

This response has been given pretty consistently since 11 July 2011, showing that despite a number of questions from concerned Parliamentarians, and in contrast to broader improvements made to casualty counting procedures by ISAF and the UN, the Government has made no effort to address the challenges of casualty counting.   Despite this, the Government claims to have

“strict procedures intended to both minimise the risk of casualties occurring and to investigate incidents that do happen”

and offers the assurance that it conducted post-strike assessments of weapons release from Reapers.   Since 1 April 2008, the Government has paid out a total of  £3,596,902.00 to Afghan civilians for deaths, injuries, road traffic incidents, property damage, and crop damage, occurring within Helmand Province and in Kabul.  But, with the absence of robust data collection on civilian casualties – how can the Government can be clear that they are making ex-gratia payments to the right people?

People have asked me: Why does this matter? Apart from the fact that counting those killed in conflict would ensure compliance for the principles set out in the MoD’s own Basic Principles of the Law of Armed Con?ic,t and a fundamental part of customary international law, it shows a disregard for our impact on this fragile state.

Casualty recording is central to the fulfilment of victims’ rights and the broader protection of civilians.  Accurate and systematic recording of casualties is an important contribution to building and maintaining support for international intervention and in challenging the narrative produced by the enemy.

It also allows governments to assess their compliance with the international legal principles of distinction and proportionality.

Ignoring robust casualty counting is negatively shaping the relationship between the UK and the United Nations in Afghanistan.  The UK has declined to participate in the review of criteria, advocated by the UN Mission in Afghanistan, to establish positive identification and determination of status, undertaken by international forces in Afghanistan.   If part of the UK’s role in Afghanistan is to “train, advise and assist” the Afghan National Forces, including the mitigation of, and accountability for, civilian casualties, how can this be achieved effectively if the UK is facing such challenges with its own casualty counting mechanisms?

This also leads to questions as to how the UK Government is able to ascertain that it is meeting its military objectives in Afghanistan?

To date, the Ministry of Defence claims to have killed only four civilians on 25 March 2011 since the drone programme began in this context.   In contrast, the United States, in carrying out roughly the same amount of drone strikes in Pakistan, are believed to have killed between 411 and 890 civilians.   This disparity in civilian casualties gives rise to a number of differing conclusions:

?      that the Ministry of Defence has a superior capacity at avoiding civilian deaths – be it through superior technology, better pilots or stricter rules of engagement;

?      that the Ministry of Defence is using a different definition of civilians from that found in, and protected by, the Laws of War;

?      that the Ministry of Defence does not know, either prior to or after an attack, the status of those killed and/ or is unable or unwilling to collect this information;

or alternatively, that the US Department for Defense does not follow such a robust procedure as the UK when collecting and verifying this information;

?      that the Ministry of Defence has killed more than four civilians but has declined to state this publicly.

Not all of these conclusions reflect well on the Ministry of Defence. I am assured by many former colleagues linked to the MoD, that drones strikes are conducted using the very highest standards of intelligence, and strikes are meticulously planned and authorised. I want to believe this is true. But ask yourselves this: if the public were polled on this issue, what do you think their current opinion would be? I believe they would fear the worst. And if the government think it important to take the public with them, I’m sure the MoD could be bolder in their approach to transparency.

Now obviously while the APPG doesn’t advocate the Government impart information which could endanger British forces, this should not serve as a cover-all excuse not to record relevant information or to make this information public.

Moving to the second strand of the Group’s work, the civil use of drones domestically, for example, by the police and fire services.  This has included some limited research on the current civil commercial use of drones in the UK to gain an understanding of the cross-over between public/private drone use.  The Group was aware of the increased use of drones by public authorities in the UK and were struck again by the lack of information on how this technology was being used.  The Group were concerned at the potential threat this technology offers to the right to privacy and the absence of a tailored regulatory framework for drone use in this context.  Initial research showed that drone use, particularly by the police, was not the subject of any centralised policy or data collection effort.  Equally, different agencies had different approaches to the levels of information that they were prepared to share on this issue.

Questions in the House of Commons found that, and I quote,

“There is no requirement for police services to report the trialling, acquisition or use of remotely piloted aircraft systems to the Home Office. …It is the responsibility of the forces concerned to ensure that they comply with Civil Aviation Authority regulations.”

This was considered an “operational matter for individual police forces.”

So the APPG submitted Freedom of Information requests to all UK police services asking if they could provide details on the procurement, testing and use of drones; details on the policies and guidance for this use; and the number of times drones had been used and under what legislation.  As a minimum, the APPG was expecting policies which referred to the relevant impacts on the Data Protection Act 1998, Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000 (RIPA) and Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights, and Human Rights Act 1998.

The most common response was that “no information was held” and that the police force in question could neither confirm nor deny that it held any other information relevant to the request by virtue of an exemption under Section 23 (5) concerned with information relating to the security bodies.  This exemption is an absolute class-based exemption and not subject to a requirement to conduct a harm or public interest test.  The Association of Chief Police Officers (ACPO) responded that they don’t hold any relevant guidance, had not taken any advice on the human rights implications of drone use and had no information on the use of RIPA and CCTV guidance as a regulatory framework for drones.  Significantly, none of these police services provided details of the policies which governed the use of drones and few made mention of any relevant human rights considerations or domestic legislation.

This policy gap appears, from the perspective of Government, to be filled by the recently issued Surveillance Camera Code of Practice.   Though local authorities and police will be under a duty to have regard to the Code, private surveillance camera operators are not obliged to comply with the Code.  It is unclear how regulations relevant for CCTV can be carried over effectively to govern drones, for example, how can the police post notices that the public are the subject of drone surveillance as per the requirement for CCTV?

The APPG’s concerns at this policy gap are fuelled by the lack of any centralised responsibility for the use of drones by Government.  These factors are significant in accountability terms.  That ACPO appears to have declined to engage with how this technology is used by police services is also of concern, especially considering its Statement of Purpose says: “ACPO leads and coordinates the direction and development of the police service”.   Finally, it is the heavy reliance upon s.23 (5) of the Freedom of Information Act, to withhold information on the grounds of national security, by police services, which is also of concern; it undermines the public’s ability to engage in informed debate on this issue and devalues the principle of policing with consent.

In contrast, and somewhat surprisingly, the UK’s fire services were both more amenable to sharing information on their considerations of drone use and the policies which govern this use.  West Midlands Fire Service trialled and then purchased a drone.  The project evaluation report showed that it was used successfully to provide live video footage of a building which had been the subject of an arson attack, footage which was subsequently used as part of the police investigation.  It has also been deployed during an incident where live thermal imaging video showing hot spots enabled the fire crew to develop a safe working strategy.  The project team have carried out demonstrations and responded to requests for information from a broad range of public authorities including other UK police and fire services.  In this context, drones offer an astute and cost-effective method of addressing the challenges faced by the fire service.

Now to the third, and final strand of the Group’s work: use by the United States outside declared armed conflict

The best known, and most controversial, use of drones is that by the United States as part of the so called “War on Terror”, outside declared armed conflicts, in Yemen, Somalia and Pakistan.  The APPG is concerned that US drone use is causing significant civilian casualties and a destabilisation of the rule of law.  In contrast to the aims of the United States, drone use is increasing political fragility and radicalisation by allowing a space for propaganda over civilian deaths.   That the UK has declined to raise these serious concerns with the United States Government, and indeed is believed to be assisting in these uses is worrying.

The APPG is aware that drone use by the United States is well covered by NGOs and legal scholars alike.  In this respect, this strand of work is currently undertaken in compliment to this broader work.

This includes a watching brief on allegations of the nature of the UK’s relationship with the US for the purposes of illegal drone strikes.  The Government has again failed to give a coherent answer to the allegations raised in the media, primarily via the Daily Mail, that the United States is operating drone strikes from RAF airbases or that BT is supplying a cable between the UK and the US Camp Lemonior in Djibouti to provide intelligence for US drone strikes.

Parliamentary Questions have thus far revealed that the:

“The Ministry of Defence does not hold information on whether RAF Croughton or RAF Molesworth are used to support US operations.”

This response seems extraordinary.  How can the Government be unaware of the nature of operations carried out by the US at UK bases?  While we could accept that an RAF Commander is not going to hover over those members of the US Air force present at RAF airbases, watching their every move, it is of great concern that the UK has frankly no idea what the US is up to.  This is particularly pertinent when it comes to drone strikes in undeclared armed conflict which, to date, a number of senior UN figures have stated that they consider to be war crimes.  Government responses such as these fuel the levels of suspicion about the levels of UK complicity in drone strikes.  The inability for Government to precisely refute serious allegations on complicity potentially furthers public misinformation about drones.  This is just one example of the flawed and opaque policy approach taken by Government on drones.  The role of the APPG is then to prod Government, and pull out the information, using the mechanisms available and to feed this information into the political and public domain.

So what have Parliamentarians achieved in the 11 months since the APPG was formed?

Undoubtedly, the work of the APPG has made a major contribution to the increased interest shown by MPs and Lords alike, in drones, and the expression of this interest through Parliamentary scrutiny.  For example there have been four debates in Parliament and since January 2012, Parliamentarians have asked approximately 270 questions in both houses on drones.  This latter figure really gives a flavour for where the interest and concerns of Parliamentarians lie, namely the need for more transparency in the use of this technology domestically and internationally in the UK, and how drones are shaping the relationship between the UK and the US.

The APPG has made over 110 Freedom of Information requests to a range of Government agencies and published a range of briefings.  We have a website, where you can find details of all meetings held, a table collating all Parliamentary Questions asked on drones, and a weekly blog on drones development.

And in the future?  As with all such endeavours, sustainable funding and governance is key to being able to plan an effective work programme.  These are now in place.  The APPG, in recognition of the paucity of the public debate on drones, and the lack of coherent information, will continue to use Parliamentary scrutiny and debate to increase Government transparency and accountability.  Making this information public, via the website and twitter is key to achieving this.  Our calendar of events, educating Parliamentarians, will contribute with monthly meetings.  Next month we have the UN Special Rapporteur on Counter-terrorism and Human rights, for example.  We are also reaching out to policy makers in other jurisdictions to understand and advise on the issues surrounding drone acquisition and deployment.  We hope such efforts will lead to a more coherent approach across Europe to the pitfalls and positives of drones.

3 thoughts on “Royal Aeronautical Society lecture: the work of the APPG on Drones at the “Unmanned Aviation: Challenges for growth” conference.”

  1. Tom, Your argument still has undue focus on the military use of which we are all very aware. You fail to spend any time exploring the real civil use of UAVs. You briefly cover the public sectors’ use by the Police and Fire Service but fail to mention that an industry is rapidly growing in the UK around the use of UAVs supporting sectors such as agriculture, oil and gas, wind turbines, surveys etc.
    You make many valid points regarding the availability of information on the use of UAVs but have a consistently negative tone towards their employment.

  2. As Chairman of the conference
    I would like to say thank you to Mr Watson attending and giving his speech. It was valuable to understand the work of and the position taken by, the All party Parliamentary Group on ‘Drones’. However, while we accept that some of the concerns of the group are real and need to be addressed, different uses of unmanned aircraft should be clearly recognised. The focus of the conference was primarily commercial operations rather than the use of lethal force.

    It is very true that the civil unmanned aircraft community is unhappy with the use of the word ‘Drones’ to cover all unmanned activaties. The International Civil Aviation Organisation terminology is Remotely Piloted Aircraft Systems (RPAS); they are aircraft, controlled by a responsible pilot located remotely as part on a system comprising the remote pilot station, the communication elements and the aircraft.

    I think it is appropriate to provide a copy of my brief closing remarks to the conference:-

    ‘We started with strongly expressed concerns about political acceptance and the possible misuse of predominantly non UK unmanned weapon platforms.

    However the conference has actually focused on real challenges to civil RPAS operations and on the ongoing activity to resolve them.
    There is now a strong European push, as well as a detailed European Commission road map, to get the regulations in place, to progress the research on integration into ATM controlled airspace and to address the societal issues of liability, privacy and public acceptance.

    We have heard that UK armed forces operate RPAS under the same rules of engagement that apply to other forces and they are always under direct pilot control, and that there is a lot of corporate activity and growing opportunities to access increasing capable systems.
    We were given evidence of the very significant growth in the productive use of small RPAS in a variety of commercial roles, with a strong focus on professionalism, and safe and ethical operations, all supported by quality training.

    In addition, through activities of the CAA and others, we see that the UK has a leading role in the development of requirements for safe systems and operations, supported by appropriate airworthiness standards, and we hear that NATS is engaged in activity to demonstrate airspace integration.

    Within the UK Remotely Piloted Aircraft Systems (RPAS) community real things are happening!
    They are leading to
    Commercial benefits
    Community Benefits
    Environmental benefits

    And they are all underpinned by an overriding commitment to safety and public acceptance

    We need to make this public – we need the wider community to know that this is a responsible and beneficial activity’.

    It would be helpful to this growing industry, in which UK has a leading position, if the All Party Group could distinguish between different types of unmanned aircraft activities and acknowledge that RPAS offer an ethical opportunity for employment and economic growth. The RAeS UAS study Group would welcome the opportunity to brief the All Party Group.

  3. I am very interested in your work to ‘inform and educate’ on use of Unmanned Airborne Vehicles. The All Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) on Drones is a testament to our democratic right to receive informed, accurate detail on the civil and military use these vehicles. Correctly managed and controlled (by international law such as ‘Rules of Engagement’) our safety can only benefit.

    I am an Aerospace Engineer graduate (1st Class Hons – Uni of Glasgow 1993); a former RAF Officer, and now a resident / member of Barnsbury Ward Islington Labour Party. My association with aviation continues both in the civil and military field; as an Affiliate member of the Royal Aeronautical Society (ARAeS) I regret missing your recent talk on the APPGs work so far on Drones.

    Your colleague RtHon MP for Islington South Emily Thornberry is my Parliamentarian. From time to time I do meet her while helping with work done in the local ward/constituency. I am interested in keeping up to date on the APPGs work and findings on use of drones now and in the future. If appropriate I would like to aid in data collection or research in this field.


    Alastair Fallon ARAeS BEng

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