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BEPJ response to UAV testing zone consultation report

The Welsh Assembly Government has published its report on the Consultation undertaken in summer 2009 into the proposed creation of an Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (Drone) testing zone.

The 640 sq mile zone will overfly a large area of West Wales inhabited by approximately 50,000 people. It will include part of north Pembrokeshire, north Carmarthenshire, south Ceredigion and an area of western Powys including the Sennybridge military training area of Mynydd Epynt.

BEPJ is opposed to the creation of the zone because it will be mainly used to test a variety of military UAV’s, in particular the Hermes 450, an Israeli plane which has been bought by the Ministry of Defence as part of it “Watchkeeper” programme. We are also opposed to the zone on safety and privacy grounds. Two UAV’s built by the Italian arms company Selex have already crashed on take off from West Wales Airport in 2009. One UAV only narrowly missed dwellings on the perimeter of the airfield.

The 68 page “Feedback Report” was written by Welsh Assembly Government staff involved in the public consultation (mainly Paul Cremin) with technical support from QinetiQ, MOD, Mann Organisation and Siluri Integration. (The Mann Organisation is the private company which owns West Wales airport. Siluri Integration is a private consultancy whose staff held senior positions in both the Civil Aviation Authority and the Ministry of Defence. QinetiQ is a multinational arms company).

The report describes how a total of 201 members of the public visited it’s 7 “Drop-in Consultations” in local towns. Each consultation lasted 5 hours. Comments and questions left by attendees and others submitted by organizations and individuals are responded to in the bulk of the report.

The report is pretty much the whitewash we were expecting. It has a response to everything, but an answer to nothing. We do not even know the names and relevant qualifications of the authors of the report, who are dismissing the concerns expressed by the UAV experts at the “Aberporth Consultancy” about safety and privacy in an avalanche of platitudes. I think it an insult to the intelligence of the people who have raised real concerns and questions.

We have to recognize the sad truth that the Welsh Assembly Government is working at the behest of the British Ministry of Defence to create a military UAV testing zone on the back of a civilian project. Once the zone is created, the MOD will be able to use it as and when it wishes, to test whatever it likes. The Welsh Assembly loses all power over it. This fact is acknowledged in the report:

“.. it recognised that there will be some military activity at ParcAberporth. The Welsh Assembly Government has no jurisdiction over the nature of the flying activity in the proposed airspace, and the Ministry of Defence has responsibility for military flying, which is not devolved to the Welsh Assembly Government”

If we assume that the CAA is unlikely to turn down a testing area requested by the MOD, then there may be little hope of stopping it. However the peaceful opposition by BEPJ to the UAV testing zone project will not only continue, but intensify as events unfold. We have already been approached by one UK wide peace group which wants us to join a UAV event they are planning. The aim of BEPJ will be to make west Wales the focus of protest against this form of warfare. As people living under the zone experience the reality of living in an MOD testing area, we are sure the opposition will grow, and the Welsh Assembly Government will be held responsible.

Many of the objections and questions in the report are on the subject of the safety of UAVs. The responses given are straight out of “Yes Minister”.

Question: In the interests of public safety how will the flight of a malfunctioning air vehicle be controlled and terminated?”

Response: There is no simple answer to this question as procedures in the event of a malfunction will be determined during the safety assessment for each UAV on a case-by-case basis. Furthermore, each UAV could have a range of potential failure modes, each of which would be managed in a different way. Wherever possible, measures will be invoked to maintain control of the air vehicle, and to ensure that it does not present a risk other airspace users, or to people or property on the ground.

This leaves us with the inevitable conclusion that should a pilot on the ground lose contact with a UAV, the only strategy in place for stopping it landing on someone’s head is to hope for the best.

On the use made of the high resolution images gathered by the UAV’s the report says that private businesses using the UAV facility will have to abide by a “code of conduct” and must comply with the Data Protection Act. On the right to privacy of people living under the zone the report merely refers to the European Court of human rights. We believe that the very act of photographing someone in great detail while they go about their daily life in their back garden is a breach of fundamental rights as laid out in Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights. BEPJ will be seeking legal clarification on this issue with a view to taking it further.

In a rather humorous section of the report the authors criticize the silent protests made by BEPJ outside two of its consultations. It even appears to blame BEPJ for the low attendance at one event in Cardigan, however that event was the second best attended with 45 visitors. All we can say in response, is, if the Welsh Assembly Government finds a single, silent protester in fancy dress annoying, they ain’t seen nothing yet…

Jeremy Clulow