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Domestic Drone Space

In a move away from the complex questions surrounding the application of UAVs within the battle space, it is worth addressing their integration into training exercises in domestic airspace. For me this raises a whole new set of problems that relate to a continued blurring of the distinction between military and civil space.  

The land owned by the Ministry of Defence for training and defence in the United Kingdom has remained steady for the last ten years at around 1% of the country's total landmass (with another ½ % being leased to it more or less whenever it needs it). In most cases this land is relatively clearly defined, but where ownership and use is more ambiguous there are the familiar flags, temporary barriers and stop gates employed to restrict entry to these flexible zones. In addition to this, however, are the intangible and barely quantifiable spaces such as transit routes, three dimensional ballistics hazards, the radial spaces defined by noise pollution and, of course, airspace.

The ‘militarized’ airspace of the UK is a highly regulated continuum of invisible but complex architectures. Many exist for only a few minutes at a time, others exist for duration of the working week, but many more are permanently off-limits to the passing civilian aircraft. The intersection of permanent aerodrome volumes, bombing ranges, temporary NOTAMs (Notice to Airmen), Air Tactical Areas (ATA) around the coasts, and low-fly zones combine to create a uniquely managed environment – one that is created to coordinate a high volume of mixed air traffic. It is one that also currently resists unmanned aerial vehicles.  

The Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) has strict guidelines regarding the use of UAVs for military or civilian use. It stipulates that UAVs over 7kg can only operate in UK airspace which is segregated (temporarily or otherwise) from that of manned aircraft. While this may, in part, be the impetus for developing smaller UAVs for domestic applications in urban environments, it also places considerable constraints on the MoD’s burgeoning UAV Watchkeeper program. Judging from a recent application to extend its military airspace to the region south of Salisbury Plain, the MoD must be having considerable difficulties in integrating these drones into training and Mission Rehearsal Exercises. The Watchkeeper’s medium range capabilities are constrained by the existing airspace architecture at Salisbury Plain Training Area which itself is heavily regulated and highly dangerous in equal measure.  

The design of this new segregated military airspace and the ensuing consultation process are being managed by QinetiQ on behalf of the MoD, and the opinions of local and national stakeholders organisations are also being solicited as a requirement of CAA procedure. But whether the new space will become a semi-permanent Danger Area, such as MoD Shoeburyness on the Thames estuary, the bombing ranges on the Lincolnshire coast, and many other sites around the country remains to be seen. If this were the case, however, another block of the sky would be appropriated by the MoD for training activity and another section of the civilian landscape will presided over by military technology. The final go-ahead from the CAA may be some months away and as QinetiQ point out, the airspace design may be subject to changes, but however complicated and drawn-out this procedure may seem, it is something that should be valued for its potential to expose the utility of the technology in question and any further incursions of military spatial production into the civilian realm.  

Plans are afoot, however, to eliminate segregated airspace for drones and establish an integrated air traffic policy where manned and unmanned vehicles fly side by side. Industrial and military stakeholders on both sides of the Atlantic seem to crave a future where UAV’s fill their domestic skies. In the USA, the Office of the Secretary of Defence stated in 2004, rather worryingly, that this must happen for the sake of national defence and homeland security. There is no reason to suspect that this strategy will change in the near future. Similar objectives are sought for the skies of the UK by a consortium of defence and aerospace giants who gather beneath the banner of Astraea. Under license from the National Aerospace Technology Strategy, Astraea seeks to ‘reinterpret’ the current regulatory framework provided by the CAA to facilitate the desegregation of British airspace.  

Of course, the questions surrounding the segregation or desegregation of domestic airspace somewhat lacks the immanence or the strategic consequences of the battle space but they are nevertheless part of the ‘bigger picture’ of UAV deployment. For now the CAA seem to be ahead of the game it terms of restricting UAV deployment until their collision avoidance capability matches that of the human pilot. But with the assumption that deregulated airspace will happen at some stage in the near future and additional pressure from both the state and private sector it seems likely that the CAA will follow suit.  

For me, it was a blistering summers day on the Oslo Fjord in 2004 when the airspace divisions were shattered and the ethical implication of drone technologies became immediately apparent. Lying on my back, passively enjoying the usual seaside sensations, an alien buzzing filled the air and a white Predator-type drone calmly passed over me at a unnervingly low altitude. I had vaguely heard about these things but imagined them confined by mountains of red tape to the hidden plains of Nevada or maybe to high altitude reconnaissance over distant war zones. The moment was both alarming and strangely prescient of future when even the most benign holiday activity is monitored by the inscrutable eye of an autonomous drone.

Matthew Flintham is in the 3rd year of his PhD at Royal College of Art, his project is linked to a larger research project called The Future of the Landscape and the Moving Image, also based at the RCA.

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