Drones: will they ever take off?

Saturday 13 October, 16:0017:15, Frobisher 4-6Technology and society

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In the past few years, remotely piloted air systems and unmanned air systems – commonly called ‘drones’ or ‘multicopters’ – have become widely popular. While remote-control model aircraft have been a niche hobby for many years, new devices are cheap, easy to control and can open up aerial photography to the masses. But the use of drones goes well beyond that.

Amazon has made headlines by announcing plans for deliveries using drones. In Japan, there are plans to allow drone deliveries in rural areas this year. In the US, drones are already being used to survey long stretches of railway track, cutting costs and saving time. Similarly, farmers could keep a check on huge acreages far more easily without having to travel there and fire services could monitor large wildfires quickly and easily. Campaigners have even used drones to fly abortion pills into Poland and Northern Ireland where the pills are currently banned.

A relative lack of regulation until recently has meant that drones are still a controversial if exciting new technology, and society is undecided how best to deal with the challenges they pose. There are ethical worries about privacy – drones used to collect data, spy on people or take intrusive photos. In addition to concerns about snooping, the Department for Transport (DfT) is also exploring technologies that can protect public events, national infrastructure and prisons from unwanted drone disturbances. There are proposals to give police the power to confiscate drones and issue on-the-spot fines to irresponsible pilots. DfT has also suggested that children could be banned from owning drones weighing more than 250g. However, Gavin Wishart from the Association of Remotely Piloted Aircraft Systems has expressed reservations: ‘We’ve got to promote the safe and responsible use of drones, but children are the future of the drone world, so it’s also important they can have access to drones and use them.’

Broader safety concerns focus on the threat of drones to larger aircraft. In 2017, there were over 90 reports from pilots of manned aircraft that their aircraft had almost hit a drone. Since July this year, drones are not allowed to fly above 400 feet or within one kilometre of airport boundaries. And from November 2019, all owners of drones that weigh at least 250g will have to register with the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) and take an online safety test, or face a fine. Supporters of drone delivery might argue that we need to balance safety concerns with the fact that the expansion of road-based deliveries has already increased congestion, air pollution and caused the occasional accident, too. Such accidents usually get little or no publicity while the novelty of a drone accident would easily hit the headlines.

Safety concerns could be a barrier to innovation. For example, at present, drones must be flown within ‘line of sight’ of the operator in almost all instances. But such a rule makes automated drone deliveries impossible, preventing many of the potentially most beneficial drone operations – from delivering medical supplies to transporting goods – from taking off. In any event, are drones really so novel? One thing that is often overlooked is how the line between drones and human-piloted aircraft is already blurred as aircraft employ autopilot technology.

Will the use of drones lead to gains in efficiency and convenience? Will excessive regulation and the attention given to a new technology when problems arise mean we never get those benefits? How do we deal with concerns about safety and ethics, while ensuring we create an environment that allows the exciting promise of this technology to be implemented? Will a wider mood of risk-aversion keep drones firmly on the ground?