Civilian Use of Drones (EUC Report)September 8, 2015
I, too, want to thank my noble friend Lady O’Cathain for instigating this debate. I declare an interest as a recently signed-up member of the present EU sub-committee, as well as having various commercial interests, as can be found in the Lords’ register, in relation to cutting-edge technologies and insurance respectively.
The publication of this report and today’s debate on its findings and recommendations are extremely timely, given the huge growth in the use of drones for commercial and leisure uses, and the potential benefits and risks that this growth poses for us here in the UK and across the world. I, too, commend the authors of the report for work that is extremely well-informed, despite the incredibly technical and emergent nature of this field, and for the proportionate recommendations put forward, which clearly seek to balance leaving room for innovation while seeking to deal with the near-term risks appropriately. The call for risk-based management of certification and regulation, the recommendation to introduce a database of commercially and non-commercially operated drone flights, and the recommendation to strengthen the research and co-operation and communication around drone development—these are all sensible ideas. And it is appropriate on the whole to encourage the EU to help play a co-ordinating role, given the global nature of drone manufacture and import/export, and the potential cross-border nature of commercial drone operations as the market develops, while recognising that the UK is a leading innovator in this field.
In view of the comments already made, I want to focus my remarks on a particular challenge highlighted by the report in the light of the need to balance and recognise rapid innovation, alongside mitigating risks associated with both commercial and leisure use of drones; namely, how to foster a regulatory framework that works and is cost-effective but does not become obsolete before it has been enshrined in global, EU-wide and national legislation and regulation.
On the one hand, the report highlights the voices of some who would like, or who default to, blanket legislation, which would be hard to police given the limited resources of the obvious regulators such as the Civil Aviation Authority or indeed the police. And there are other voices, such as Jay Bregman, cited towards the end of the report, who highlight the role that private sector-led initiatives and innovators such as Verisign can play in developing technologies and tools for self-regulation in the management of internet security.
Clearly the blanket approach is unworkable, and I would like to see whether my noble friend the Minister agrees that in our discussions with EU bodies looking into drones we should avoid any top-down regulation of a one-size-fits-all nature, which, as the report highlights, has hampered innovation and the development of a drone industry in, for example, the United States. Equally, I personally disagree with the comparison of any internet-of-things sector, such as drones, with the digital internet as we have known it, given that a key difference is that a drone can fall out of the sky and kill or injure someone, whether deliberately, such as through an act of terrorism, sabotage or hacking, or by accident.
Surely the way forward is to work out where the long-term development of smaller drones, in particular, is headed, and to try to work back to the key inflection points along the way, where we will need to evolve legislation at global, regional, and national levels. To me, it is very clear that drones will and should form part of the wider internet-of-things ecosystem, and that ultimately this is about a transportation and logistics revolution that will be as dramatic as the work we are seeing in the introduction of self-driving vehicles. As such, in the short term we need to consider not only how drones will operate purely in terms of their relationship with aviation but how they will function within a future transportation web of which cars and airborne vehicles delivering people—or, more likely in this case, goods and objects—are a part. We need to consider that ultimately drones will be part of a worldwide hive of robots, operating even in indoor environments—for example, to carry items such as the food that we may end up eating in restaurants, or enabling goods to be delivered to remote and rural areas cost-effectively.
On the one hand, taking this integrated view is incredibly complex but, on the other, ultimately realistic given the passing of time. It should be remembered that smartphones themselves are barely a decade old—and look where we are today. This view can allow us to encourage a mix of approaches through different global,
EU and national bodies to develop proportionate, cost-effective and workable regulation. The report highlights a number of ideas that would fit with this approach, such as the creation of a database of flights by unmanned drones, and resourcing the development of enabling technologies to avoid collisions. But I would be minded to go further than this, and utilise our governmental, civilian and EU influence to push for a more integrated framework.
For example, how do we utilise our influence to ensure that higher-risk internet-of-things devices, of which drones are a part, can be tracked and identified, and even traced using GPS when in the air, and that any database for drones could be integrated with others developed for robots in general? How do we harness, for example, the lever of insurance, to encourage registration of drones, both commercial and civilian, with higher or no cover for those that are not registered? How do we encourage the kind of catapult-backed funded research in autonomous transportation that we are seeing in the ground vehicle space to ensure drones are geo-fenced from high-risk areas, and avoid harming people on the ground even when their pilots, by accident or design, crash them into crowds or built-up areas? How do we assess the impact of drones in the workplace on lower-skilled jobs, as part of the wider debate on the impact of robotics and automation generally into service environments, and help smooth the labour market transitions that are on their way as these systems become more widespread?
I would like to ask the Minister, therefore, given the likelihood of serious accidents or even future terrorist events using drones, which could set back industry and dent public confidence, how the Government are seeking to build a holistic and integrated vision for how drone services and the industry can be supported to develop safely amid the wider transformations taking place in a world that in decades will look quite different from today’s—one incorporating trillions of devices, of which millions or billions may be airborne. Or will the Government’s approach to this area primarily be one of laissez-faire, in which we will regulate or seek to regulate through the EU and other bodies, only mainly after the event?
The advent of smaller, affordable and innovative drones is one of the most exciting developments of the era in which we live. But, as with all internet of things and robot-related developments, there are serious risks, many of which this report admirably highlights. What can we do as a country, and what can we do through Europe, to safeguard both the public and our national interest, while at the same time fostering the dynamic entrepreneurialism and innovation that we are helping to lead? If we can pull off this delicate balancing act, we will be able to harness drone development to strengthen our economy, I hope create lots of interesting jobs, and ultimately benefit consumers and businesses alike in ways that we can only begin to conceive of today.