The Unmanned and Remote-Piloted Systems Working Group

The Unmanned and Remote-Piloted Systems Working Group is one of four new working groups established in the Institute for Conflict, Co-operation and Security. The aim of the working groups is to bring together subject matter expertise across the University of Birmingham on the subjects they cover. As established, the Unmanned and Remote-Piloted Systems Working Group draws on research expertise in the fields of International Relations, Security Studies and War Studies to address issues relating to military and civilian uses of those systems.

Over Year 2015/16, the Working Group will expand to cover the relevant departments outside the Colleges of Arts and Law and Social Science, as well as to build upon the work of the ESRC project on The Political Effects of Unmanned Aerial Vehicles on Conflict and Cooperation Within and Between States and the Sixth University of Birmingham Policy Commission, which covered the security impact of Unmanned and Remote-Piloted Systems. With strong fit to Departmental and School Strategies, the Unmanned and Remote-Piloted Systems Working Group will add value to grant capture, relevant outputs, conceptual and instrumental Impact and capacity building.

About us

The world is at a point where unmanned and remote controlled systems are playing an increasing role, both in everyday life and in military operations. Domestically, the use of driverless cars has passed the million mile mark, driverless trains are increasingly common, and ever more complex intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) and kinetic systems are making their presence felt in the battlespace.

This working group studies several aspects of unmanned and remotely piloted aerial systems. This is a broad field and is getting broader and more complex as time wears on. The activity covered by the group varies geographically and thematically and, in addition to aerial systems, is starting to incorporate unmanned and remote systems which operate on and under the sea.


There are several areas of research on which members of the Unmanned and Remote Piloted Aerial Systems Working Group are working. These are as follows:

The Political Effects of Unmanned Aerial Vehicles on Conflict and Cooperation Within and Between States

The ESRC awarded a grant of £289,412.78, to Professor Nicholas Wheeler (PI), Professor Stefan Wolff and Professor David Dunn to investigate "The Political Effects of Unmanned Aerial Vehicles on Conflict and Cooperation Within and Between States." The study uses three case studies in its approach, Pakistan, Yemen and Afghanistan. The point of departure for this project, and responding to that part of the ESRC Global Uncertainties call which focuses on ‘Improving our ability to use S&T developments to increase co-operation and collaboration as a means of preventing future conflict’, this research investigates in a comparative context how conflicting perceptions of the use of UAVs shapes the propensities for conflict and cooperation both within the territory of the penetrated state and between the intervening state and the state in which the UAVs are operating. Contact: Nicholas Wheeler

Towards a new (restraining) global consensus on the use of armed drones (Jan 2016 - Dec 2017)

This project – supported by a grant from the Foundation Open Society Institute in cooperation with the Human Rights Initiative of the Open Society Foundations – aims at securing a new normative consensus that delegitimizes the use of armed drones for targeting killing outside of recognized war zones. Such a consensus does not exist within Europe, between Europe and the United States, nor globally.

Birmingham Policy Commission VI: The Security Impact of Drones

The sixth Birmingham Policy Commission examined the security implications for the British Government of Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV) technology, both civil and military. The Commission brought together leading academics from the Institute for Conflict, Cooperation and Security at the University of Birmingham with NGO experts and distinguished former public servants. It was chaired by Sir David Omand, former UK Security and Intelligence Coordinator and a former Permanent Secretary of the Home Office and Director of GCHQ. The Commission has taken evidence from a wide range of British, US, and French experts, as well as inviting written submissions from around the world.  The Report was launched at the Royal United Services Institute on 22nd October 2014. There was also an event a year on from the launch at the Houses of Parliament. There is still much interest in the role of the Commission and its report, as well as requests for interviews and information with regard to it. Contact: Nicholas Wheeler

UAVs in Africa

This scoping work for a potential project is about the way UAVs are used in interventions in Africa, most notably in an intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance capability, though kinetic use is also of interest. Given the political situation around the world, Africa is the most likely place for those interventions and any project will cover Mali, Niger, Libya, Somalia, Cameroon/Nigeria and the Democratic Republic of Congo, as well as flows of refugees across the Mediterranean Sea. The question we are asking is: What roles do UAVs play in interventions in Africa, how are they seen and how are they strategized? In doing this, we are also seeking to be as policy relevant as possible and are keen to be able to share that relevance with Government. When we look at the policy relevance of intervention and the role of UAVs in the geographical scope of the project, the prism we are using to analyse and discuss the relationships between them is strategy, which links both intervention and geography together. To date, there has been little connection made between UAV debates and R2P debates. They are not connected but they need to be for a more complete understanding of where both sit in terms of UK strategy, as well as that of other states. Contact: Chris Wyatt

Nefarious Criminal and Terrorist Uses of Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) (Apr 2016 - Apr 2017)

On 13 November, 2015, ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) suicide bombers made three failed attempts to get into the Stade de France. Their targets were the massed spectators (including the French President), who were inside the stadium. They eventually exploded their bombs outside the stadium to much less affect. Both the attack and attempts to thwart it followed a well-rehearsed path. The terrorists wanted to get inside the security perimeter to maximise the impact of their attack. Conversely security checks succeeded in keeping them on the outside of the defended area. Yet new technologies present a challenge to such terrestrially-bound interplays. It is now possible to put the explosive yield inside that secured area, begging the question of what would have happened if the terrorists had strapped their vests to three small remotely piloted UAVs and flown them over the walls of the stadium and into the crowd at a point calculated for maximum destruction, stampede and panic. In such a case the loss of life on Friday 13 November would have been much worse.

The focus of this research project is to analyse the threat presented by the revolution in easy access to the air presented by the technological development of small and medium sized Unmanned Aerial Vehicles. The research design has its focus on the research question: To what extent does new unmanned technology challenge traditional conceptions of vulnerability and risk? In asking about the extent to which new unmanned technology challenges traditional conceptions of vulnerability and risk, this project will add real value to this area of academic study, as well as in the impact it will generate at the levels of both policy and practice. The proposed building of databases, interviews and the interactive development of that information will be fundamental to the furtherance of knowledge in this field and the instrumentalization of it, in addition to dissemination and ongoing capacity building. Contact: David Dunn

UAV Use in Iraq and Syria

Recent events have extended the British use of UAVs/RPAS to Syria from Iraq. Work being undertaken at present consists of collecting data to inform research work to be undertaken later.

Data collected relates to strike operations and, where available, information on combined operations, both ISR and kinetic, with manned fixed wing aircraft. Contact: Chris Wyatt

Unmanned Maritime Strategy: Opportunities and Challenges for the UK

Can the use of unmanned systems reduce the threshold to allow conflict to take place? The question is one which is posed concerning air power and unmanned aerial systems (UAVs) but it is not discussed with regard to unmanned maritime systems (unmanned underwater systems (UUVs), unmanned surface systems (USVs) and unmanned maritime aerial systems). This is a significant omission in our understanding of an issue, at a time when the UK has circa 70 UUVs and has committed to spend £17m more on them, which will have profound consequences over the coming decades, because the same question ought to be asked about unmanned systems at sea. Other aspects, such as the debate on autonomy and full automation, have also remained rooted in discussions related to aerial systems. The position of the British Government on autonomy and full automation were discussed in the joint doctrine note concerning UAVs. The equivalent maritime operating concept does not mention unmanned systems at all, making it difficult meaningfully to discuss an unmanned maritime strategy for the UK. Compare this to US thinking, which has unmanned maritime Master Plans for unmanned underwater and surface vehicles, discussion of autonomy across systems and a roadmap covering all sea, air and land aspects. These documents scope out functions, missions, concepts of operations and policies which further the understanding of unmanned systems and their capabilities, especially concerning the role of littoral scenarios. This scoping work looks at the intersection of the littoral as a place where conflict may occur and questions whether the recourse to unmanned systems could reduce the threshold to allow conflict to take place. The prism through which the question is to be put is that of anti-access and area denial (A2/AD), so whether defences could be breached by unmanned systems or defended by them in the littoral or at distance is an essential element in determining the question of whether unmanned systems would have an effect on the threshold of the use of force per se. The understanding of how this would form part of British policy, diplomatic, strategic, conceptual and doctrinal thinking, as well as the development of a meaningful Concept of Operations (CONOPS), is also important. A particularly original aspect of this work is to look at the unmanned maritime vehicles and systems together and strategically, rather than as individual classes and types, making a vision greater than the sum of its parts. Impact accruing is also expected to be strong. Contact: Chris Wyatt

Unmanned Maritime Systems and Potential Use in the Baltic/Arctic/North Sea Theatre

This is another research project which is in the early stages of development.

Research done to date is on framing the use of systems in the wider theatre and scoping potential mission parameters. Contact: Chris Wyatt

The Figure of the Warrior in the World of British Drone Pilots

Lindsay's research focuses on articulating the importance of the figure of the warrior in the lives of British "drone"/RPAS pilots and crew members. She uses a gender framework to investigate this figure. The British military remains a strongly masculine institution (not just in terms of the number of male to female members but in terms of its structure, culture and language). It appears that, in order to be considered valued members, drone pilots needs to demonstrate their masculinity, and one means of doing this is through the construction of a warrior identity.

Derided by some of their fellow military members as ‘arm chair warriors’, ‘cubicle warriors’; and with popular reports referring to them as “pilots” rather than pilots; drone pilots are having to break new ground in terms of their identity within the military establishment. Some commentators have directly connected the use of drones with the decline of the warrior identity within the military. They argue that the lack of physical risk to drone pilots renders war entirely instrumental and that, devoid of the existential realm, drone pilots are unable to meet the criteria to be considered warriors. However, Lindsay is interested to find out whether there is the possibility that drone pilots will develop their own form of military masculinity.

Lindsay's research draws on Avery Gordon's novel methodology of "Haunting" and ghost hunts, utilising interview and qualitative questionnaire data, as well as data from official British policy documents. Lindsay is a member of the Young Drone Scholars Network, the Drone Research Network and is in the lead on developing a BISA working group in the same area. Contact: Lindsay Clark

Working Group Members

Latest research news

Posted 09 November 2017

Uber to work with Nasa on flying cars

Professor David H Dunn offers expert opinion on the regulatory challenges of the potential commercial use of unmanned aerial systems.

Posted 30 August 2017

European traineeship for ICCS volunteer

Maren Evensen, who recently completed a voluntary work placement with the ICCS, has been accepted for a traineeship with the Council of Europe.

To find out more information about this Working Group, please contact Dr Chris Wyatt:

The Unmanned and Remote-Piloted Systems Working Group is part of the Institute for Conflict, Cooperation and Security (ICCS).