Physical sciences and ICT

Overview of ongoing and future projects on topics relating to physical sciences and ICT that have been approved by the POST Board.

Civilian drones

The use of drones (unmanned aircraft) is increasing for both recreational and commercial applications. The British Airline Pilots Association recorded 117 near misses between aircraft and drones in the UK between January and November 2018.

Between 19–21 December 2018, 115 witnesses reported drone sightings at Gatwick Airport, which resulted in flights being suspended for 36 hours. This incident has renewed debate about the potential risks that drones may present for safety, security and the economy, as well as the adequacy of existing controls to tackle illegal or harmful drone use.

This POSTnote will update PN 479 on Civilian Drones (2014). It will consider current and future uses of civilian unmanned aircraft, including their role in criminal activities. It will provide an overview of the legislation and regulation governing drone operation in the UK and consider the role that technology could play in enforcement. It will also include an overview of anti-drone technologies and their associated technical challenges.

Critical materials

The UK relies on imports of certain raw materials for use in a wide range of products and applications. Since 2011, the EU has maintained a list of 'critical materials' that are assessed to be of economic importance but whose supply is at risk. The 2017 list includes 27 materials. These are primarily metallic elements such as cobalt, gallium and dysprosium, as well as some non-metals such as natural rubber.

Critical materials are used in many modern technologies. A smartphone, for example, may contain up to 50 different metals. They are also commonly used in 'low carbon' technologies such as electric vehicle batteries, energy efficient lighting, wind turbines and solar panels. A 2016 EU Commission report estimated that the increase in low carbon technologies will increase the demand for certain critical materials by a factor of 20 by 2030.

China is the major supplier of many critical materials, and accounts for approximately 70% of their global supply. However, in recent years the Chinese Government has tightened control of its critical materials supplies by imposing export quotas and tariffs on certain materials. The EU, Japan and the US have filed repeated complaints about China's trade restrictions to the World Trade Organization.

These developments have prompted interest in new sources of critical materials. For example, in recent years, the feasibility of mining for critical materials on the seabed has gathered significant interest, as seabed mineral deposits are known to be a rich source of certain metals, particularly manganese, nickel, copper and cobalt. Deep sea mining can be legal in a country's coastal waters but is currently not permitted in international waters.

This POSTnote will examine current and future demand for critical materials and summarise the debate on their future supply. It will look at regulations around recycling of critical materials, and new techniques that are being developed to improve recycling levels. It will also examine research into potential substitutes for critical materials and their effectiveness. It will update POSTnotes 368 on Rare Earth Metals and 508 on Deep-Sea Mining.

Key EU space programmes

The UK Government recently allocated £92m to develop technical proposals for an alternative system to Galileo (global satellite navigation), if the UK is unable to continue its participation.

This POSTbrief will provide a technical overview of three EU space programmes: Galileo, Copernicus (Earth observation) and Space Surveillance and Tracking (of spacecraft and debris, for the protection of space-based assets such as satellites). It will explain what these programmes are, how they operate, the services they provide (or will provide once completed), and outline UK involvement to date.

Online safety education for young people

Children's use of the internet has significantly increased over the past decade and they are also increasingly likely to access the internet from their own personal devices, such as smartphones and tablets. Parents and the Government have expressed concerns about preparing children for 'life online'.

A 2017 survey conducted for the Children's Commissioner found that, while 73% of parents are concerned about the material that their children access online, many do not feel confident about teaching their children to use the internet safely. The Children's Commissioner has also identified shortcomings in the teaching of digital skills in schools.

This POSTnote will discuss the available evidence on how children, parents and teachers view online safety and how aware they are of online risks. It will examine the ways in which online safety and wellbeing is currently taught, summarise what online safety teaching resources are available and also look at the role of technology in improving online safety, such as using age verification tools.

Contact POST

Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology
Houses of Parliament

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