Amendment 24

Air Traffic Management and Unmanned Aircraft Bill [HL] - Committee (2nd Day) – in the House of Lords at 3:38 pm on 12th February 2020.

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Lord Craig of Radley:

Moved by Lord Craig of Radley

24: Schedule 8, page 64, line 9, leave out “controlling” and insert “in control of or has operation of”Member’s explanatory statementProbing amendment regarding whether an unmanned aircraft flying automatically on a pre-programmed route is the responsibility of its operator, even when it is not being manually controlled at the time from the ground.

Photo of Lord Craig of Radley Lord Craig of Radley Crossbench

My Lords, I shall speak also to Amendment 26. These are probing amendments about the phrase, in lines 8, 6 and 16 on page 64,

“the person is controlling the unmanned aircraft” and seek the Minister’s response to a query I raised at Second Reading as to whether it would encompass all instances concerning an airborne unmanned aircraft where a constable required a person to ground it. As unmanned aircraft and drone technology advances, there may be pre-programmable types that, once airborne, will no longer be under active control from the ground.

As we advance into 5G, it might be possible for two or more individuals to have apps on their smartphones able to handle more than a single drone and passing control of them from one person to another. On a bigger scale, and as we know, this is what happens now when RAF operators controlling an RAF Predator UAV in the air over Syria from their base station in the United States pass monitoring and control to another operational team at RAF Waddington in the UK. Such control-sharing activity, scaled down, must be widely available soon, if it is not already.

With an app on a smartphone, I and many others can already turn lights or other devices on or off in our home at any time and from anywhere in the world with a wi-fi link. It will surely be possible for AN Other on the ground to switch from one UA onboard programme to another with just a smartphone. Noble Lords may have further suggestions of how and in what way drone and other unmanned aircraft capabilities will advance.

My amendment seeks to probe whether the present wording of Schedule 8, about an individual “controlling”, is sufficiently embracing to meet present and future possibilities of unmanned aircraft operational misuse that a constable wants to stop. The amendment would cover more than in-hand control while airborne, which smacks merely of attempting to deal with the single hobby-type user. Until an incident has been investigated, it may not be clear whether the operator is just a lone nuisance type, as may have happened at Gatwick, or a member of some terrorist team with advanced technology at their disposal. In other words, is the present wording of the Bill sufficiently comprehensive for a constable to act to cover all types of possible future operation that could be unlawful? Indeed, what should the constable be required to do if the operator is not physically controlling the flight of the UA? Perhaps this, too, needs to be covered for completeness, for I doubt that even my amendment would be adequate.

This is my second amendment and, as I mentioned, it is purely probing, to seek a response from the Minister to my concern that the present phrasing may be overly restrictive and so inadequate. I beg to move.

Photo of Lord Glenarthur Lord Glenarthur Conservative 3:45 pm, 12th February 2020

My Lords, I regret that I was unable to play a part at Second Reading, or indeed earlier in Committee, but I have a professional background in aviation, which some noble Lords will know about and which is declared in the register of interests, so I was particularly interested in the noble and gallant Lord’s amendment.

One thing that the civilian helicopter community does is patrol pipelines for gas, oil and all sorts of other things. Something that has begun to worry some of us is that a helicopter, for example, following a pipeline to inspect it and ensure that it subscribes to all the parameters the oil company wants of it might meet either a drone coming the other way—because drones can do that job—or a drone that is crossing the route because it is doing something else. If the necessary controls are not there, how can we ensure that the conflict is removed? Who will have responsibility for it? If the drone is autonomous and not within the geographical boundaries that have been set for it, where does responsibility lie?

These are real issues and it is the responsibility of all of us in aviation to ensure that airspace is properly managed. It concerns me, as chairman of an organisation that flies aircraft—helicopters, particularly—on these pipeline patrols, that a drone coming the other way, or crossing a pipeline and not under adequate control, could cause an accident. I hope that my noble friend will be able to reassure me.

Photo of Lord Naseby Lord Naseby Conservative

My Lords, I think the House knows that I used to be an RAF pilot. I express some disappointment that the clerks’ department, somewhere along the line, did not add my name to this amendment and a number of others—but I have accepted the apologies of that department.

There is a vast difference between “in control” and “controlling”. I live on a hill in Sandy, Bedfordshire, and so far I have collected two drones that were, by definition, very close to being over the 400 feet and certainly not in the line of sight. I think it is very important that we differentiate between those who are actually flying the drone and those who might technically own the drone or control the company that is flying the drone, or some other definition. I hope that my noble friend on the Front Bench will recognise that this is not a superficial difference but a very significant one and that we must make sure that there is a clear definition. I thank my noble and gallant friend for raising the matter now.

Photo of Lord Berkeley Lord Berkeley Labour

My Lords, there is a remarkable similarity between the discussions on this amendment and the discussions we have had over the years on self-driving, autonomous cars. The only difference is that this is three-dimensional and the other one is generally two. The noble and gallant Lord, Lord Craig, and the noble Lord, Lord Glenarthur, both gave examples of a question I have long had. The noble Lord, Lord Glenarthur, mentioned two drones meeting over a pipeline or something, but the problem remains: how does a constable identify the person who is in control, or whatever? He is sitting in his car with his machine—or however he is going to do it—but how will he identify that? He cannot really arrest either the drone or the person unless he can identify them first. I hope that the noble Baroness will be able to explain this rather simple bit of logic which has escaped me so far.

Photo of Baroness Vere of Norbiton Baroness Vere of Norbiton Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Transport)

My Lords, I thank the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Craig of Radley, for introducing this small group of amendments and giving us the opportunity to probe this wording, because it is incredibly important that we understand that the wording is fit for purpose. While I understand the intention behind his amendments, after careful consideration the Government believe that the existing wording in paragraph 1 of Schedule 8 regarding a person or persons controlling an unmanned aircraft is fit for purpose in relation to both manual and pre-programmed operations.

On Amendment 24, regarding the power for a constable to require a person to ground a UA—unmanned aircraft—a constable could exercise this power in relation to a UA performing a manual or pre-programmed operation if they had reasonable grounds for believing a person or small group of persons to be controlling that aircraft. Where this reasonable belief exists, the constable could require a person to ground the UA regardless of whether it was pre-programmed or not— hence the existing wording is sufficient for the power to be effective in the circumstances envisaged by the noble and gallant Lord.

A similar issue arises in Amendment 26; again, “controlling” refers to the UA when it is being flown either manually or in a pre-programmed mode if it is capable of that. It is therefore our view that the distinction that the amendment seeks to make would have no discernible benefit, since the description implies a person controlling a UA in line with the existing wording in the Bill. However, the Government recognise that UA technology is constantly evolving, and we will continue to keep our policies under review to ensure that they remain fit for purpose.

On the point made by my noble friend Lord Glenarthur about helicopters and pipelines, he is quite right that unmanned aircraft will increasingly be used for tasks such as patrolling pipelines, railways and all sorts of other things. However, under the current regulations drones should not fly over 400 feet and must remain within line of sight—to go beyond line of sight is against the regulations. They must have permission to do either of those two things. To get that permission, one would assume that those operating the helicopter would be aware that there might be drones operating in that area.

On the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Berkeley, about identifying the person, the constable must have a reasonable suspicion that the person is controlling the unmanned aircraft. That is not infallible, but a reasonable suspicion is not certainty. Therefore, given that the drone must remain within line of sight, a person will probably be able to be seen.

I hope that, based on this explanation, the noble and gallant Lord will feel able to withdraw his amendment.

Photo of Lord Craig of Radley Lord Craig of Radley Crossbench

I thank the Minister for her reply, which I shall obviously want to look at. I am still left very unclear about the depth of thought that has been given to this. She talks about situations where somebody is obeying the law and this does not matter, but I am concerned about the individual who is not obeying the law—who is flying above 500 feet and beyond sight of their drone. It seems to me that more is required than is presently available in the Bill—but at the moment I beg leave to withdraw my amendment.

Amendment 24 withdrawn.