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Unmanned military drone aircraft are best known for lethal attacks in Afghanistan and Pakistan, where they are used to target Taliban suspects, but in Wales the aircraft is best known for the nuisance that it causes among residents while it is being tested over the UK’s first segregated airspace specifically for testing drones.
Unlike in Afghanistan and Pakistan, where it has been claimed that the unmanned aerial systems (UAS) or drones have been responsible for killing high levels of civilians, the drone testing area in Wales, has yet to claim its first innocent victim, but residents are increasingly angry at the high pitched noise that the flying drones make. The designated airspace extends inland 40 miles to the east of the Welsh coast and covers an area of 499 square miles and has been operational since 28thJuly 2011, since the Welsh government secured permission from the United Kingdom’s Civilian Aviation Authority (CAA) for the space to be used. General aviation pilots can still fly through the region, as well as Royal Air Force pilots who conduct training missions nearby. It has been reported that the airfield has been used to test the SELEX Galileo‘Falco’, an Italian-made unmanned airplane that is being used by the Pakistan military to patrol border areas with Afghanistan. Tests of other drones have also been undertaken, including the British army’s Watchkeeper WK450, which is being built by an Israeli firm to conduct reconnaissance, surveillance, weather and other targeting missions and until this year has only been tested over the Irish Sea.
The UAS’s operate from an old WW2 airfield next to the Aberporth military range on Cardigan Bay, which is currently the only centre for the testing and evaluation of both military and civilian UAVs in the UK. In the USA permission for the flying of drones in commercial airspace less than 400 feet is extremely difficult and is only ever given permission if the drone is operated in ‘line of sight’, but in Wales even the line of sight restriction has now been lifted. In Australia the government has designated certain areas as ‘smart skies’, where the testing of drones is permitted under a three year programme, which is based in an airfield outside Brisbane. However Wales is significantly smaller than Australia and the risk of fatal crashes into populated areas is higher.
Residents in the Aberporth area and beyond have complained bitterly about the noise, crash landings and mysterious lights in the sky, but the current Welsh Government however are fully supportive of the development and promotion of the drone airspace. The Government say that it would like to attract commercial and military testing of their UAS’s and have argued that this is a growth area that that will bring employment to the country. However it was initially argued that the development of the Aberporth airfield site would create hundreds of jobs, which locals say has not occurred. Nevertheless the Welsh Government insists that the drone airport and airspace will draw commercial firms from the USA and elsewhere that are not permitted to test their drones in the same way in their own airspace.
At the Celtic League 2012 AGM in Breizh, a resolution was passed expressing concern of the use of drones off the Welsh coast and Irish Sea, in view of the high volume of domestic air traffic between Britain, Ireland and the Isle of Man. It may only be a matter of time before civilian casualties are being counted in Wales, in much the same way as they are in Afghanistan and Pakistan.
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The Celtic League has branches in the six Celtic Countries. It works to promote cooperation between these countries and campaigns on a broad range of political, cultural and environmental matters. It highlights human rights abuse, monitors all military activity and focuses on socio-economic issues.