Drone deliveries, we’ve been encouraged to believe, are the (near) future. But is there a dark side to these flying marvels? It appears there is…

The Way Forward?

Back in 2013, when Amazon announced it was testing the logistics of ‘Prime Air’ – a 30 minute delivery service by drone – the idea sounded like the stuff of science fiction, and fraught with problems. Surely it was just a publicity stunt?The Dark Side of Drones

No. Amazon declared: “One day, Prime Air vehicles will be as normal as seeing mail trucks on the road today.” But Jeff Bezos, CEO of Amazon, admitted that Prime Air wouldn’t go live for four or five years and that its future would depend on commercial licensing from aviation authorities – and an easing of their regulations.

In the midst of the hype, though, were voices of caution. Dr Darren Ansell, a UAV (unmanned aerial vehicles) expert, highlighted the risk of theft from the drones or of the drones themselves, and of the danger of injury to the public: “The UAVs do not currently have the awareness of their environment to be able to avoid flying into people,” he warned.

Since then other companies, including Google and DHL, have announced they are testing out drone deliveries, takeaway deliveries by drone have been trialled in Beijing, and Australian textbook rental service Zookal has released an online video of a test drop.

In March, UK distributors FPS delivered an automotive part to a customer via drone as a ‘proof of concept’, believed to be the first B2B drone delivery in the UK – and more may follow here; due to its more relaxed laws on the operation of drones and its pool of aviation expertise, the UK seems to be becoming something of a hub for drone development. Top UK aerospace firms, BAE Systems and Rolls-Royce, are developing drones for commercial purposes and Amazon have set up research facilities for Prime Air in the UK at the site of Cambridge-based Evi Technologies, which it acquired in 2013. While this may be a positive thing for the UK economy, drones themselves may not be all good news.

Breaking the Rules

With thousands of small drones now being purchased as trendy gadgets, as well as an increasing number of smaller businesses investigating their potential, a darker side of drones is beginning to appear.

The Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) have grown increasingly concerned about safety around drones and have recorded ‘a number of recent incidents’ where drones appeared to be flying ‘well above drone height limits, with some reported as high as 2,000ft from ground level and in areas where large aircraft are present. ‘

The CAA’s regulations regarding UAVs are simplified in their ‘Drone Code’, issued last month, which warns that drones with camera must not be flown within 50 metres of people, vehicles, buildings or structures, or over congested areas or large gatherings such as concerts and sports events. It also advises all drone flyers to ensure they can ‘see their drone at all times’ (usually taken to be no more than 1500 feet away), not fly it higher than 400 feet and keep it away from ‘aircraft, helicopters, airports and airfields,’ and warns: ‘Use your common sense and fly safely; you could be prosecuted if you don’t.’

They’re serious. In April 2014, the CAA prosecuted an individual for flying an unmanned aircraft through restricted airspace over a nuclear submarine base, the first such prosecution anywhere in the world, and in May 2014 Mark Spencer was charged after the CAA became aware of his video filmed over rides at Alton Towers by his ‘quadcopter’ in November 2013. He was fined £150 each for the offences of ‘not maintaining direct, unaided visual contact with a small unmanned aircraft’ and ‘flying a small unmanned surveillance aircraft over or within 150 metres of any congested area.’

Complaints and mandatory occurrence reports to the CAA have increased sharply. Drones have been making a nuisance of themselves over crop circles, TV locations, football stadiums, airport taxiways and events such as the Tour de France, and by flying dangerously close to aircraft in the air.

Potential for a Darker Purpose

In April this year, a drone delivering asparagus to Dutch restaurant as a publicity stunt crashed and burst into flames, and the Washington Post recently reported that drones are causing problems in the US, impeding efforts to fight wildfires, crashing into buildings and narrowly avoiding collisions with airliners – not to mention being used to smuggle drugs into prisons in Ohio and South Carolina.

The royal parks in London forbid drone flights due to concerns over terrorism and while existing privacy laws cover drones too, they’re easily flouted with a drone, making some people fear that drones are yet another way to threaten their privacy and security.

At present, CAA regulations mean that companies require permission for commercial use of drones and also limit the distance and weight of deliveries to an extent that may make services like Prime Air unfeasible in the UK, but with advancing technology making drones safer to fly out-of-sight and the Department of Transport’s belief that they are “an emerging technology bringing significant economic benefits,” the dreams of Amazon and its drone-flying competitors may be a reality soon enough. But it’s obvious that careful thought needs to be given to the future regulation of drones as they become more numerous in our skies.