Sunday 25 September 2016

We must not wait until there's a disaster before we increase regulation on drones

Published 20/04/2016 | 02:30

'It won’t be long before drones are a genuine menace.' Photo: Andrew Matthews/PA Wire
'It won’t be long before drones are a genuine menace.' Photo: Andrew Matthews/PA Wire

The news that a British Airways Airbus A320 was struck by a drone as it prepared to land in Heathrow on Sunday may have been shocking, but it wasn't surprising.

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On that occasion, the plane, which contained 132 passengers and five crew, collided with the drone at 1,700 feet as it made its approach and while it was cleared to fly again after an inspection by safety engineers, it is just the latest example of unmanned aerial vehicles coming into dangerously close proximity with a plane.

Heathrow has reported an increase in such incidents in recent months and the fact that the collision occurred as the jet was flying over a crowded Richmond Park at the time has caused further alarm for authorities.

According to Chief Superintendent Martin Hendry of London's Metropolitan Police, the incident "highlights the very real dangers of reckless, negligent and sometimes malicious use of drones.

"The potential is there for a major incident."

For many people who have been observing the surge in popularity of drones with increasing concern, this latest near miss provides further proof that it is only a question of when, not if, drones are used in a major terrorist attack.

This view is echoed by Steve Landells, flight safety specialist at the British Airline Pilots Association, who has called for greater regulation of unmanned aircraft, saying: "Frankly, it was only a matter of time before we had a drone strike, given the huge numbers being flown around by amateurs who don't understand the risks and the rules."

This sense of growing alarm is also shared by Irish pilots, particularly in the wake of two near misses involving drones and planes, as well as 13 'unidentified runway incursions' in Irish airports in the last 12 months.

Mark Prendergast of the Irish Airline Pilots Association has also called for greater regulation, arguing that: "Incidents of near misses are increasing on a weekly and monthly basis. Hobbyists are just taking these drones out and flying them around without any real awareness of the regulations or adhering to them.

"They have no formal training but they're interacting in airspace where manned aircraft are operating."

As always, when new technology meets old laws, the law struggles to keep up and when you consider that there are an estimated 10,000 drones in Ireland, the only surprise is that there hasn't been an accident yet.

A new registration system was recently introduced by the Irish Aviation Authority to try to combat the growing risk of amateurs controlling a device at high altitude - the maximum legal altitude is 400 metres, although that's impossible to enforce - but the fact that a software glitch exposed the personal details of those who had registered is unlikely to encourage more users to sign up.

The irony, of course, of drone users complaining about their privacy being breached will not be lost on many people. After all, even when you remove the potential for use in a terrorist attack, many people resent the idea of being filmed from afar by a stranger operating a drone.

We saw a perfect example of this just last week when British TV presenter Richard Madeley chased some drone operators down the street while dressed only in his underpants, accusing them of filming him on his property.

Public sympathy for famous people, even those dressed only in their underwear, may be in short supply.

But there has been a spike in drone-related violence in America, particularly one precedent-setting case which saw a Kentucky man shoot down a UAV (unmanned aerial vehicle).

In the Kentucky incident, William Meredith successfully argued that he had a right to shoot the drone out of the sky because, he claimed, it was being used to record his 16-year-old daughter sunbathing in their back garden.

To the dismay of drone operators everywhere, the judge ruled in Meredith's favour and while that ruling has been appealed, it has serious ramifications in the growing conflict between drone owners and people who simply don't appreciate being buzzed by a stranger.

Drones are little more than an irritant at the moment. But it won't be long before they're a genuine menace and the unease many pilots feel at hobbyists controlling such devices is shared by anyone who doesn't want to be filmed remotely.

It's interesting that in an age of increased and justifiable concern about the creeping prevalence of government surveillance, society's most popular new toy is essentially a private, mobile surveillance unit, employing technology which was previously the property only of the military or law enforcement.

Whether they're launching Hellfire missiles in Afghanistan or simply being used as a recreational device, or delivering our online purchases, as Amazon owner Jeff Bezon envisions, drones aren't going anywhere, and when you consider that you can now buy a new drone for €100 in many Irish department stores, this is a problem which is going to get worse before it gets better.

When you look at the regular conflict between cyclists and motorists who seem to increasingly resent sharing the same road space, it's hard to imagine a scenario where the conflicting rights - and responsibilities - of drone owners and non-drone owners won't cause immense friction.

Until then, however, the authorities seem utterly at a loss about how best to cope with this increasingly popular pastime.

Presumably, they'll wait until there's a terrorist attack before making any decisions.

Irish Independent

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