Managing the drone free-for-all

May 14th, 2015, Published in Articles: EE Publishers, Articles: PositionIT



Peter Newmarch

Drones have been in the news lately, some for all the right reasons and in many cases for all the wrong reasons.  Drones are nothing more than a new technology – a tool in an ever increasing array of tools. Just as the discovery of fire facilitated human advancement, it also brought with it some social ills like the ability to burn down a village. In the case of drones, we should proactively anticipate their misuse and defend against their dangers to preserve future benefits.

Aside from legislation (and forthcoming legislation) around piloting drones, commercial licences and airframe certification processes, nothing else would be required for anybody to own or fly a drone. Of course drones range from the very expensive to the cheap off-the-shelf versions at your local hobbyist or IT shop. Recent examples of an ever increasing number of dangerous uses of drones include a radioactive (protest) drone found on top of the Japanese prime minister’s house; helicopters assisting in fire-fighting operations having to stop flying due to unidentified drones flying in the area; and criminals using drones with thermal cameras to see if anybody is home.

The free-for-all use of drones will create lots of more socially unacceptable uses and errors of judgement in pursuit of capturing that best picture, selfie, or making a political statement. God forbid terrorists start to use them for ideological agendas.

While we indeed live in a free society, subject to the legislative requirements around flying and operating a drone, anybody can “legally or illegally” own one. The law only concerns itself with actually flying it. Therein lies the problem. Irresponsible people and criminals don’t care about the law and won’t comply anyway – but yet they can import / build / buy any system they like.

A recent meeting with the South Africa Council for the Non-proliferation of Weapons of Mass Destruction helped in part with the realisation that at least at a long range level and higher weight carrying capacity level there is regulation and indeed people are watching. It is however the smaller distances and the smaller weight carrying capacity that will prove to be the Achilles heel of drone use. Imagine the Comrades Marathon where spectators want to create and upload videos on the fly with the latest Go Pro and drone; the reality of drone-on-drone accidents at crowded events is a real possibility. The criminal and terrorist threat even more so as people become used to seeing drones over events.

Perhaps it’s time to consider legislation similar to TV licences. If you buy a drone, the onus is on the supplier to comply with some kind of RICA/FICA so that every drone can be accounted for / tracked via one central registry. Suppliers/ manufacturers should have a simple registration process just so that at least at a superficial level one knows who is making / selling drones. Responsible players will want a responsible market place. I don’t believe it to be in society’s interest that the “local corner shop” can simply sell any drone to anybody off the street. To do so, we are asking for trouble in the current volatile world arena. Car planes are on their way and again technology advances on society, but such should not be an unfettered advancement, rather a controlled advancement on acceptable moral and ethical societal uses with accountability.

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