SkyGuardian or Protector 090921 CREDIT MOD.jpg
A pre-production example of the UK's new Protector aircraft was tested in UK skies last year (Picture: MOD).
Aircraft

Should armed drones be allowed to fly over the UK?

Detect and Avoid equipment exists for safety purposes, but some argue this is not sufficiently tried and tested.

SkyGuardian or Protector 090921 CREDIT MOD.jpg
A pre-production example of the UK's new Protector aircraft was tested in UK skies last year (Picture: MOD).

A public consultation has begun into whether armed drones should be allowed to fly from RAF Waddington.

This also raises the bigger question of whether they should be allowed to fly over the UK as a whole. 

Currently, flying is not permitted in domestic airspace for safety reasons, but the Ministry of Defence (MOD) is in talks with regulators to allow Protector RG Mk1 – its new drone – to fly alongside other aircraft.

Detect and Avoid equipment exists for safety purposes, but some argue this is not sufficiently tried and tested. 

Sixteen Protector aircraft have been ordered from US company General Atomics-Aeronautical Systems Inc and will be based at RAF Waddington.

Entering service in 2024, they will replace the RAF's current fleet of 10 Reaper aircraft. 

A pre-production example was tested in UK skies in August 2021 after airspace regulators gave permission. Campaigners staged protests at the time sighting safety concerns of the drones flying over residential areas. 

The public consultation also states that "... access to existing training areas around the UK will also be considered as part of the integration into the national airspace structures", suggesting the fly zone could be wider than just RAF Waddington.

It also makes reference to the move of the Red Arrows to Waddington from Scampton, and the need for this change of activity to be included in the RPAs (Remotely Piloted Air Systems) proposal. 

Watch: All you need to know about RAF's next-generation Protector aircraft.

The statement of need reads, in full: "There is a requirement for a large Remotely Piloted Air System (RPAS) to operate out of RAF Waddington from the mid-2020s. 

"Pursuit of an ACP (airspace change proposal) optimises an approach, in terms of efficiency and safety, for RPAS to operate from and to RAF Waddington.

"Furthermore, this approach will support the safe integration of the RPAS into the national airspace structures, given the anticipated performance of on-board systems and the surrounding airspace classification. 

"Access to existing training areas around the UK will also be considered as part of the integration into the national airspace structures.

"There is an emerging requirement for the RAF Aerobatic Team to conduct display flying activity over RAF Waddington from early 2023 following the team's relocation from RAF Scampton in late 2022.

"Integration of this requirement within the Protector ACP is considered the safest operating model."

The MOD is asking for views from aviation stakeholders, local authorities, air traffic management, as well as the general public, on its airspace change proposal. Views can be submitted online here.

Consultation is now open and will close on 30 November 2022.