Drones are currently one of the fastest moving technology stories, but included in the growing daily newsflow coverage are clear warning signs of the challenges facing civil drone use due to various public concerns. Whilst we already are aware of these major concerns such as safety, privacy, nuisance, trespass etc., and despite a desire to address them by governments and the various bodies discussing the wide scale development of civil drones, it is quite possible we will fail to do so effectively to the detriment of the drone industry.
Recently, amongst the continuous daily newsflow were three news items that help us in understanding the problems faced. The first of these items related to the changes made to the New Zealand regulatory rules for the flying of drones. The second story was the call by Amazon in its quest to develop a drone delivery business, of having dedicated air space corridors for its operations. The last item was news of a drone shot down in Kentucky by an irate householder, angry at the drone's intrusion into what he saw as his private space. By linking these news items with research I have carried out using FOI requests to UK Police forces to discover the level of drone related complaints recently made by the public in the UK, gives us an insight into public acceptance problems that are not future concerns, but are very much with us now.
The recently introduced regulations for flying drones in New Zealand highlight key problematic issues that countries around the world will need to address, arguably the sooner the better. The risk based approach taken by the New Zealand Civil Aviation Authority which is designed to enhance safety where drones are being flown, has at its heart two core regulations. The first, Part 101 of the New Zealand Civil Aviation Rules, includes what are generally common features in a number of national unmanned aircraft regulations - that an unmanned aircraft must remain in the line of sight of the operator and that the aircraft cannot be flown higher than 400 feet above the ground. What makes the New Zealand regulations stand out however, are that Part 101 also requires that drones cannot be flown over people without their actual consent, or flown over property without the occupiers consent. These requirements are a clear recognition by the New Zealand authorities of public concerns. For commercial drone operators having to obtain such consent would likely in many instances prove time consuming and challenging. However, the new Part 1 consent requirements are not designed as such for commercial drone operators, with the rationale being that if commercial operators needed to seek such permission it should be a signal to them that their flying operations are likely to be hazardous, and as such they should not be flying under Part 101 rules, but instead should seek from the New Zealand Civil Aviation Authority a Part 2 certification for flying. The Part 102 operating requirements are established on a case by case basis, giving potentially greater flying scope than available under Part 101. However, to obtain a Part 102 certificate a drone operator needs to go through an extensive process providing the New Zealand CAA with detailed information relating to the risks of their intended operations and the measures taken to mitigate such risks.
Those operating under Part 101 rules will primarily be non-commercial - leisure drone flyers, but a major question for all regulatory authorities is just how such regulations are going to be enforced? The new regulations reflect not just safety concerns, but also privacy concerns, and in New Zealand the central organisation for privacy related matters are the Privacy Commissioners Office. Alongside the New Zealand CAA and Privacy Commissioner, the other primary enforcement agency of course are New Zealand Police, who would it can be surmised be expected to play a central role in such enforcement. But without technical means of identification, public organisations with finite resources and perhaps stronger priority calls on such resources will face considerable difficulties enforcing such regulations. Only last week in the UK, Chief Constable Sara Thornton, head of the National Police Chiefs Council, warned that with stretched Police resources, burglaries may no longer even be investigated. She pointed out that for UK Police the three central priorities are child sex crime, cybercrime and terrorism. So it can be envisaged that unless specific drone activity is likely to cause serious safety concerns then little resource allocation can be expected to be generally forthcoming.
Later this year in the UK, Nigel Wilson faces the first ever Police led prosecution for alleged multiple infringements of the Air Navigation Orders, after on numerous occasions flying his drone over Premier League football grounds. Whether a successful prosecution of Mr Wilson will act as a deterrent to other drone flyers as some may hope, is perhaps a tad optimistic. It is striking that Mr Wilson's case is the first Police led prosecution given the number of complaints received by Police across the UK, but with what I have already said regarding resources it is unsurprising.
The following table provides details of how many calls Police forces around the UK have received relating to drones roughly over the last couple of years. These details were provided under FOI requests. Unfortunately North Yorkshire Police, Police Scotland, Essex Police, Surrey Police and Wiltshire Police were all unable to provide any figures as they said the costs involved in identifying drone related calls would be too great.
Even more interesting than the total number of calls received by the Police are the specifics of the calls that have been made. 24 of the Police forces listed above also provided descriptions of the nature of the calls/complaints received. I have split these into various categories in the table below. It should be noted that some of the matters complained about in calls fall into more than one category in the table.
Created with the HTML Table Generator
One of the complaints received by Lincolnshire Police was from a person who annoyed at having a drone fly over his garden took out a rifle, presumably an air rifle, and shot at the drone. The fact that he actually complained to the Police about the drone and told them what he had done speaks volumes. In the past couple of weeks in the United States, Kentucky resident, William Merideth, annoyed at what he said was a privacy infringement, shot down a drone which led to his arrest. There are contradictory accounts from Merideth and the drones owner as to the height the drone was flying at, with Merideth claiming it was far lower than the drone owner believes, who has sought to show through the release of video footage the flying height of the drone. In reality if we are talking about a potential invasion of privacy, with the high quality cameras now available a hundred feet either way would unlikely be significant. But of course most people would assume that the closer a drone is to you then the more invasive it will seem, particularly if it has a camera.
Amazon's recent announcement that in order to help facilitate drone delivery services it is calling for an air corridor between 200 and 400 feet above the ground to be used solely for sophisticated high speed drones raises further difficult questions. Firstly, this would force all other drones not given access to this corridor into flying below 200 feet, which may well add to concerns the public have. Without robust technical controls however it would seem impossible to enforce such a blockage on access to the 200 - 400 feet zone. But a further important matter is that whilst Amazon and other operators may see a unique commercial opportunity, and these commercial drones will be operating above 200 feet, except of course when they are coming into land and deliver, how will the public be consulted on such a proposal to have a meaningful possibility of influencing the decision making process?
Part of the overall problem facing decision makers lies in the rapid speed of development of the drone industry, and how to balance the various parties interests. New Zealand has clearly sought to balance those various interests, but as I have pointed out there is likely to be a hugely problematic enforcement issue, which may if not properly addressed lead to those disgruntled about drones taking their own self help measures.