The Guardian reports today that “Police in the UK are planning to use unmanned spy drones, controversially deployed in Afghanistan” as part of a “national strategy developed by arms manufacturer BAE Systems” and “a consortium of government agencies”. You can read the full article here.

The “national strategy” to which the Guardian refers is actually the ASTRAEA project, a £32 million ‘public-private’ partnership that has been funded as part of the UK’s National Aerospace Technology Strategy. ‘NATS’, as the strategy is known, is an industry-led government initiative adopted in 2004. By the end of 2008, the initiative had attracted some £464 million in collaborative R&D funding for 70 individual programmes.

So while none of this exactly ‘news’, credit to the Guardian for its freedom of information request and provocative reporting. The comments on its article certainly show the strength of feeling against the use of drones/UAVs in the UK.

By way of clarification, there are actually two types of unmanned aerial vehicle (UAVs): (i) the armed and unarmed ‘drone’ planes’ to which the Guardian report refers, and (ii) much smaller miniature spy planes. The latter are basically remote-controlled aircraft fitted with cameras and are already in use in the UK and other countries.

Annotated image labeling components of police drone

The military drones the Guardian is reporting on are currently prohibited from flying in European airspace because of well-founded concerns about potential collisions with traditional aircraft. The air traffic control community is particularly suspicious, and demands that UAVs adhere to the same safety standards as their manned counterparts, which some argue render UAV systems too expensive to implement. I’d be very surprised if the “sense and avoid” systems for these kind of drones will be licensed in time for the 2012 Olympics, but governments and the aerospace industry are certainly throwing money at the problem and can be relied upon to lobby hard when the technology is in place.

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