Is it a bird? Is it a plane? Nope, just a drone. The use of drones is better associated with conflict, as they play a prominent role in American military strategy. In the UK, the use of civilian drones is a nascent industry, which the lawmakers are looking to regulate effectively in order to ensure its safe use.
What is a drone? We can rule out ‘bird’, ‘plane’ and ‘Superman’ from the list. To the military, this object is known as a UAV (unmanned aerial vehicle) or RPAS (remotely piloted aerial system); to laypeople such as us, they are simply known as drones. Drones are typically used in situations where a manned flight is considered too risky, but they want to have an ‘eye in the sky’. For example, British forces have used the Hermes 450 UAV in Iraq and Afghanistan as well as utilising smaller drones to assists with tracking down roadside bombs ahead of patrols. Technology these days eh?
Britain is famous for many things – fish and chips, East Enders, the Beckhams, and so on. Now it appears that the civilian drone is the next big thing. Under current statutory rules by the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA), it is only legal to fly a drone that weighs over 20kg in certified ‘danger area’, such as Parc Aberporth aerodrome in Wales. Where an individual uses a drone weighing under 20kg for non-commercial reasons – certain protocol must still be followed: anyone filming with a drone for their own purpose for example, are prohibited from flying it within 150 metres of a congested area and 50 metres of a person or vehicle. Uh oh.
The immediate concern is the need to complement the growth of the industry with effective regulatory procedures, particularly because drones are readily accessible – they can be purchased for as little as £40. Investing time and money into the safety aspect of the industry is worthwhile because the House of Lords EU Committee, in their report, stated that the drone industry could create as many as 150,000 jobs by 2050.
The key recommendation from the House of Lords report is the creation of a database of civilian drones being flown in the UK, in order to enforce their safe operation – there is growing public concerns that drones may be utilised by private individuals with little knowledge of aviation rules. The database would create a portfolio of all civilian drones and their pilots as well as allow police greater powers to enforce flight rules.
The committee urged the EC to liaise with the US National Aeronautics and Space Agency, which is already working on something similar, and that a system capable of logging flight plans and drone identification numbers should be developed. The importance of this mustn’t be understated because it isn’t inconceivable that journalists and authorities may not use the medium of drones to spy on others; a solid system would allay fears of drone usage giving rise to a Big Brother-esque society.
Drones have the potential to revolutionise business practice, and in an era of innovation, its presence should be welcomed. The corollary to this is that they can erode privacy, giving rise to harm. Therefore it is imperative any laws made in this area are clear and concrete, so as not to give rise to any confusion. It will take a bit of time to ensure everything is drone and dusted.
By Kamran Khan