Flight campaign in the UK: Military drone operates in civilian airspace for the first time

Throughout Europe, military drones are only allowed to fly in restricted areas. This is a major obstacle for training and missions inside the country. A British flight series with a US drone is now set to bring a breakthrough for flights in civilian airspace.

For the past two weeks, US drone manufacturer General Atomics has been flying a „SeaGuardian“ in the UK’s civilian airspace. The unmanned aerial vehicle, designed for maritime surveillance, has a wingspan of 24 metres, can climb up to twelve kilometres and remain in the air for 40 hours. With these flights, the British Ministry of Defence wants to prepare the introduction of the almost identical „SkyGuardian“. From 2024, it is to replace the current armed drone fleet of the Air Force, where it operates under the name „Protector“.

For the flight tests, the drones are equipped with a „Detection And Avoidance“ system (DAA). It shows the pilot which other aircraft are in the vicinity and warns of danger. In the event of an imminent collision, an avoidance procedure is automatically initiated. The British Civil Aviation Authority has provisionally approved the operation of the system.

Training to take place in inland areas

Until now, drones used for military purposes have only been allowed to fly in areas with flight restrictions throughout Europe. If civil airspace is crossed, it must be temporarily closed to other air traffic. This significantly restricts their use for training. Because large drones in Germany are also only allowed to fly in restricted areas, the German Air Force, for example, trains with its own drones in Israel.

The flight of the US military drone over London has so far only been shown in a collage by the manufacturer, but missions inside the country are planned (General Atomics).

The integration of military drones into UK airspace controlled by air traffic controllers therefore has an international signalling effect for their domestic use. In 2018, General Atomics had already flown a „SkyGuardian“ in civilian airspace across the Atlantic to the UK. At the time, Germany and other European governments were faced with the decision to procure large, weaponised drones. With the transatlantic flight and a subsequent air show in Greece, the US company wanted to gain an advantage in this race.

The „SeaGuardian“ received a similar authorisation for flights in Japanese airspace. General Atomics has also carried out corresponding simulations in the Netherlands. The government in The Hague has ordered four „Reapers“. These are the predecessor of the „SeaGuardian“ with a smaller payload.

Two crashes per month

The „SeaGuardian“ is stationed in Waddington, England, until October, and the future „Protectors“ will also be based there. Their transfer from the USA took place on the occasion of the NATO military exercise „Joint Warrior“, various British organisations had therefore called for protests. UK Dronewatch, for example, criticises the firing exercises planned on air force training grounds and points to the high crash rate. According to the report, over 250 large military drones have crashed in the last ten years – twice a month on average.

Subsequently, the British Air Force undertook further flights in various areas in Scotland and England as well as over the North Sea. Permits to cross German airspace were not requested. Most recently, the „Protector“ flew through the English Channel, where it may have supported the monitoring of migration movements. The government in London ordered the deployment of military drones for this purpose last year.

According to the British Ministry of Defence, the „Protector“ could also be requested for surveillance missions as well as rescue missions inside the country. In the US, General Atomics drones are already being used by border agencies and the Department of Homeland Security for such missions.

The „SkyGuardian“ or „SeaGuardian“ is a further development of the „Predator“, which now looks back on a 30-year history (General Atomics).

In addition to Great Britain, Belgium has ordered four „SkyGuardian“, which are to be delivered from 2023. For this reason, the British military had invited the head of the Belgian Air Force to England for demonstrations. Morocco has also decided to buy the drones, but like Belgium, they are not to be armed. In order to still have combat drones at its disposal, the Kingdom is procuring Turkish „Bayraktar TB2“.

The Belgian Military is also enthusiastic about drone flights over Scotland and England (Belgium Air Force).

Autor: Matthias Monroy

Knowledge worker, activist, editor of the German civil rights journal Bürgerrechte & Polizei/CILIP.