Further article on privacy and drones

November 15, 2012 |

The BBC has another report on the rapid take up of drones for civilian purposes in  Unmanned aircraft project leads push to civilian drones.  The story provides:

The “Pandora’s box” of unmanned aircraft in the UK has been opened, according to the Astraea consortium.

Yet many technology and ethics issues surrounding civilian drones are yet to be solved, journalists at London’s Science Media Centre were told.

The UK-led, £62m Astraea project – which has participation of the UK Civil Aviation Authority – is attempting to tackle all facets of the idea.

Later in November, they will carry out a crucial collision-avoidance test.

A recent report by the UK’s Aerospace, Aviation and Defence Knowledge Transfer Network (KTN) found that applications for unmanned aircraft are said to be worth some £260bn – replacing costly or dangerous work done by manned planes, or opening up new applications“Start QuoteIt’s not just the technology, we’re trying to think about the social impact of this”

Crop or wildlife stock monitoring, search and rescue, and check-ups on railway lines are some of the envisioned uses of UAs.

“All these things are currently done by manned aircraft, and they’re done in currently quite hazardous environments,” said Ruth Mallors, director of the Aerospace KTN.

“We want to use unmanned aircraft in these applications, but to be able to do that we have to demonstrate that were complying with the Civil Aviation Authority regulations, which are for manned aircraft.

“There’s not going to be any new regulations – we’ll comply with the regulations in place.”

That is what brings about the technological challenge. The project involves sensors to be the “eyes” of a UA, the software to carry out manoeuvres and collision avoidance, and the aircraft themselves.

Points of debate

Plans for UAs envision that a pilot will always be on the ground controlling them, but they must have on-board technology that can perform in an emergency – in the eyes of aviation law – as well as a pilot.

“These things are going to have a level of self-determinism, particularly if you ever lose the communication link with the ground control,” said Lambert Dopping-Hepenstal, Astraea project director. “They’ve got to be able to operate fully safely and take the right decisions.

“But we’re not talking about unthinking drones, we’re not talking about irrational and unpredictable behaviour, and we’re not talking about something that gets itself up in the morning, goes off and does its own things and comes home without any human oversight.”

The project has the participation of major contractors including BAE Systems, Rolls-Royce and Thales UK. But they are also working closely with the Civil Aviation Authority, who will ultimately control the licensing for UAs when they pass stringent safety tests.

Gary Clayton, head of research and technology for EADS Cassidian, another project partner, said the CAA’s publication CAP722 is being held up internationally as a template for aviation legislation around UAs.

But Mr Dopping-Hepenstal said the project is aiming much further than the technology and safety legislation.

“What this programme is trying to do is look at this holistically,” he said. “It’s not just the technology, we’re trying to think about the social impact of this and the ethical and legal things associated with it. You’ve got to solve all this lot if you’re going to make it happen, enable it to happen affordably.”

There is already public concern about UAs in the UK, most recently surrounding their use by London’s Metropolitan Police.

Chris Elliot, an aerospace engineer and barrister, is acting as consultant to the project. He told reporters that the licensing and privacy questions were points “to debate, not to pontificate”.

“We have a very robust privacy regime now for aviation, and I don’t see much very different. A lot of it comes down to what society thinks is acceptable,” he said.

“I find it interesting that Google has got away with its [Streetview] because we love Google and we all use it. If this technology positioned to something that is good for us, that we like, then people will accept that kind of behaviour.

“Pandora’s box is open – these things are going to fly. What we need is to engage everybody, the public and the specialists, with understanding the good and bad sides.”

For now, though, safety is paramount. The Astraea project will carry out real-world collision-avoidance tests using three planes in two weeks’ time, putting their autonomous control software through its paces and ensuring that unmanned aircraft can independently avoid a crash.

Drone techonology and its use is far outpacing the law’s ability to practically regulate it.  And regulate it in a meaningful way, which must involve more than licensing a user.  It also must include restrictions on use and sanctions for misuse.  A drone now has the ability to intrude in a person’s space so much more effectively and precisely than a helicopter or fixed wing aircraft.  It can be very portable, very economical and built for purpose, that is with a camera and little else.

Chris Elliot’s reported commentary in the article is quite surprising for a barrister.  It is absurdly illogical and more polemic than analysis.  The comparison of a use of a drone and Google street view is at best superficial, even on an undergraduate level.  He says we love Google.  First, is that right?  Second, Google is hardly a good citizen or netizen when it comes to protecting privacy.  It has been enmeshed in controversies of its own making in Europe and elsewhere through its poor privacy practices.  The comparison of Google Street View, a static shot which almost invariably does not depict individuals and a drone hovering over a person or place taking pictures or transmitting video to an operator is ludicrous.   Mr Elliot does not describe what the very robust privacy regime is (and the term is more spin than serious descriptor) but my understanding of the UK system is that it is far from “very robust” on an objective analysis.  He describes the issue as coming down to “..what society thinks is acceptable.”  At best it is an interesting, but flawed take on the development and operation of laws and protections; a privacy equivalent of vox populi vox dei.  Perhaps Mr Elliot skipped a lecture or many on civics and civil rights. His conclusion, that  “Pandora’s box is open – these things are going to fly” is a variation on the “Privacy is gone, get over it.”  It is an underwhelming and wrong approach to privacy protections.  It is possible to embrace drone technology provided, and only after, there is a robust set of enforceable protections for individuals or group privacy.

The story has an interesting side bar on the regulatory regime applying to drones in the UK.  It provides:

  • It is legal to fly your own drone in the UK without any special permission if it weighs less than 20kg and flies more than 150m from a congested area
  • CAA permission is required if it is used for a commercial activity such as aerial photography
  • Permission has been given for inspecting power lines, police use and crop surveillance
  • Direct visual contact with the drone is currently required at all times
  • Drones larger than 20kg would have to be approved for use by the CAA for use in UK airspace in the same way as commercial aircraft
  • The CAA has made clear that it will not approve their use until it is convinced the drone can automatically “sense and avoid” other aircraft

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