Drone Nation: 300 companies and public bodies using arial surveillance tech

MPs are calling for a debate about privacy and safety. Jamie Merrill and Oliver Troen report

The number of drones operating in British airspace has soared, with defence contractors, surveillance specialists, police forces and infrastructure firms among more than 300 companies and public bodies with permission to operate the controversial unmanned aircraft.

Operators of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) must apply to the Civil Aviation Authority to gain “permission for aerial work”, or face prosecution. An analysis of the latest CAA figures shows that numbers of authorised drone operators in the UK has risen by a third in the past year. This has prompted politicians and campaigners to call for a comprehensive review of civil drone use.

“The past few years have seen an almost exponential growth in the number of UAV operators, primarily because it is actually very cheap for former pilots to set themselves up on a very low-cost business model,” said Phil Williams, head of robotics at the Knowledge Transfer Network advisory group. “It’s an incredibly exciting area and the UK should push to take the lead, as globally there is a very open marketplace. However, we need to be careful to take privacy and data protection concerns into account so as not to create a backlash against the technology,” he added.

The majority of the 301 UAV operators in the UK are photography firms and production companies, which includes the BBC and ITV, as well as independent production firms working on television projects ranging from Top Gear to filming the cricket at Lords.

However, three police forces have permission to operate drones as well as several firms with links to the surveillance industry. Many drone operators also boast of offering “surveillance” services and list infrastructure firms, insurance companies and council planning departments among their clients. Other high-profile users of drones include the League Against Cruel Sports, which plans to use small drones to monitor hunt meetings for illegal activity. They are also popular with wedding photographers.

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