2014 Review (Part Two): Crunch time approaches over civil drones

Drone advocates lobby Congress

2014 has been a year of growing awareness in the media of the dangers posed by civil drones, while the drone lobby and entrepreneurs on both sides of the Atlantic continue to push regulators to relax current restrictions. It is likely that push will come to shove in 2015.

Throughout the year the use of small drones by individuals and small companies has continued to increase.  The Guardian reported in October that in the UK – where companies can apply for permission to fly drones for commercial purpose albeit with restrictions – the number of permits granted since the beginning of the year has increased by 80%. In the US, although there continues to be a de facto ban on the use of drones for commercial purposes, many private individuals are flying drones. In January the US Air Line Pilots Association expressed concerns about the use of drones in civil airspace after a US Predator drone being operated by US Customs crashed while on patrol. An American Airlines pilot coming into land in Florida reported a near miss with a drone in March, while UK pilots reported that a drone deliberately buzzed their aircraft in Essex resulting in the British Airline Pilots Association (BALPA) joined their US colleagues in warning of the dangers of the growing use of drones in civil airspace.   By the end of the year, the Federal Aviation Authority reported a surge in such near misses

While military and civil drones continue to crash at an alarming rate (see our Drone Crash Database), safety is not the only worry, with many expressing concern about the impact on privacy. In the US, the Wall Street Journal reported Supreme Court Judge Justice Sonia Sotomayor speaking out about the invasion of privacy by civil drones:

“There are drones flying over the air randomly that are recording everything that’s happening on what we consider our private property. That type of technology has to stimulate us to think about what is it that we cherish in privacy and how far we want to protect it and from whom. Because people think that it should be protected just against government intrusion, but I don’t like the fact that someone I don’t know…can pick up, if they’re a private citizen, one of these drones and fly it over my property.”

Technological advances make it possible for devices to “listen to your conversations from miles away and through your walls,” Justice Sotomayor said. “We are in that brave new world, and we are capable of being in that Orwellian world, too.” Elsewhere a New York Times editorial called for legislation to protect the public’s privacy from drones. In the UK the Information Commissioner included new guidance on the use of drones in their the Code on the use of CCTV. The Code warns that the public must be given notice of the use of cameras. As Lewis Silkin comments:

“Although it is easy enough to stick a notice outside a building, the code highlights the problems that users of drones will face in providing information to those on the ground who may be within camera shot. Having identified the challenge, the code then suggests drone users come up with “innovative ways” of providing the information. Although the ICO offers some suggestions, one senses that drone technology has outpaced thinking on data protection compliance.”

Also in the UK the House of Lords began an inquiry into the civil use of drones which is ongoing at the end of the year. The European Commission said in April that it would set ‘tough new rules’ for the operation of civil drones although little detail has emerged.

Meanwhile, the civil use of drones continues to take off and drone operators are beginning to be arrested for dangerous and illegal use of drones. In the UK the first arrest and conviction took place when an operator flew a drone over BAE Systems nuclear submarine facility. Further prosecutions have taken place including one for flying a drone over Alton Towers theme park and another for flying a drone over a football ground. In the US two men were arrested when the drones they were flying came close to a police helicopter in New York while another was arrested for flying his drone over a traffic accident where a medical helicopter was trying to land. In France drone operators have been arrested for flying drones near the Eiffel Tower and for hampering relief efforts as a cargo ship floundered.

drone-industrilaNo one, however has so far been prosecuted for the two most serious breaches of safety in relation to the use of drone this year. In October a drone was flown into the middle of an international football match between Serbia and Albanian. The drone, which carried a banner with provocative flag and nationalist slogan, sparked a brawl among the players and fighting on the terraces and eventually led to the match being abandoned. More seriously, in France 13 out of 19 nuclear power facilities have been breached by drones in a seemingly coordinated campaign over the past few months. Anti-nuclear campaigners deny responsibility and while amateur drone pilots have been arrested, they have been cleared of involvement. Ministers have now given French police authority to shoot down the drones if they return.

Despite these safety and privacy fears, drone lobbyists and companies continues to press governments and regulators to relax restrictions.  Amazon, for example, one of the corporate big guns wanting to use drones, have been pressurising the FAA by telling them they will take their research overseas if they are not allowed to fly drones in the US soon. In the UK drone lobby group ASTRAEA, which is backed by large defence companies, has been briefing behind the scenes that the technology to allow drones to fly safely in all airspace is ready and all that is needed is approval from regulators.   This however is far from the case and other European drone stakeholders have attacked ASTRAEA’s, err, optimism.

Despite the hype, drones pose significant danger to the public safety and to privacy. However drone lobbyists and companies will continue to dangle over-inflated figures for supposed economic benefit before governments in the hope this will persuade them to relax the controls. Without huge improvements however, regulators must resist these changes.

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