Age does a recap article on what drones are, what they are doing, what they are likely to do and the impact on all of us

March 16, 2014 |

In Drones: Sky’s the limit for airborne snoopers the Age does a brief overview of the issues that the burgeoning use of drones raise (pardon the pun).  Not a bad quick overview of the technological issues but nothing I haven’t covered in the last two years of postings on drones (here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, and here). A worthwhile contribution.

There is uncertainty of the number of drones are in use in Australia (or America) and who is operating them.  Drones can be built from scratch, using kits, imported directly or purchased from hobby stores or Dick Smiths (to name but one outlet that sells them).

What there is no uncertainty about is their increasing use and their increasing capabilities as battery technology, design capabilities and payload and camera usage capacity develop and grow.  Dewey eyed industry types rhapsodise about what they can do and how they can do; improve agriculture, guard our borders, watch fires, investigate crime scenes, inspect pipes in the outback, count inventory in large sites, take photographs for real estate postings etc…  The article touches on those uses.

Even the privacy risks and lack of regulatory structure are well known.  The difference is that while the technological side of things moves on at a pace and the business community and hobbyists take up the controls in ever growing numbers there is little more than a frozen smile from regulators and law makers.  It is not an Australian phenomanum.  In the US the FAA is finding the problem hugely perplexing.  That is no excuse for doing nothing.  On the legal front some form of privacy protections should be enacted to deal with the issue without having to have recourse to nuisance and trespass.  A statutory right to privacy is a good start.  The Privacy Commissioner should have some rights to investigate under this rubric but not, definitely not have the sole role. It should be a right in personam which should give an individual a right to take action.  On the regulatory side after a very good start more effective regulation should be put in place.  And then properly enforcing it.

Identifying drones is always an issue when it comes to taking action. It is worth looking into the requirement for each drone have an electronic tag which will enable them to be tracked when an incident occurs.  Or some form of registration.  There are many possible approaches.  The problem is a lot of not very much is being done at the official level.

The article provides:

How widespread have drones become in civilian industries and among consumers?

In Australia, drones increasingly are being used by emergency services, photography, surveying and agricultural industries, with more than 81 operators licensed to fly them, according to aviation regulator CASA. Drones have also become popular among hobbyists, thanks to companies such as Parrot, which sells a Wi-Fi controlled quad-copter for about $350 online and in retail stores. Retailers speculated last year that about 100 new multi-rotor drones and fixed-wing drones take to Australian skies each week.

What kind of things are they being used for?

Commercially, drones are often used instead of helicopters to shoot TV ads, inspect infrastructure, such as power lines, monitor livestock, and assess emergency situations such as bushfires. Animal welfare groups are also using them to conduct covert operations above free-range egg, sheep and cattle farms to gather evidence of alleged abuse, causing some controversy. Melbourne’s Metropolitan Fire Brigade and the Queensland Police also use drones. The MFB used one last year to assess a truck dangling off the Bolte Bridge.

What kind of loads can they carry?

It depends on the type but some quad-copters, such as the Australian-built Coptercam, which costs $13,000, can carry loads up to two kilos. Other fixed-wing drones, such as ScanEagle, which costs about $100,000, can carry up to six kilos. Cheaper drones on sale in retail stores generally have cameras attached to them that can be viewed remotely and are not designed to carry additional payload.

If drones could carry drugs into a prison, could they also carry a gun or a bomb?

It’s entirely possible but there are no known cases of this occurring; drone drug delivery to jails, however, have also reportedly been achieved, attempted or foiled in Brazil (250 grams of cocaine), Georgia (500-900 grams of tobacco) and Russia (700 grams of heroin).

What do they cost and do you need a licence to buy or fly them?

Australia was the first country in the world to introduce legislation covering civilian use of drones in 2002. It requires operators to be licensed to use a drone commercially; to qualify, operators need to undertake training and register their drones with CASA. Recreational operators, however, don’t need to be licensed or register their drones. Regardless of whether a drone is used for commercial or recreational purposes, the law stipulates a pilot must be in command at all times via remote control and keep the drone within his or her line of sight. The rules also require the drone be kept below 122 metres, operated only in daylight, and kept away from populous areas, airports and people unless a special licence has been issued. Infringement notices of up to $8000 can be issued if the rules are broken.

Are they hard to fly?

Consumer drones on sale at retail stores are relatively easy to fly but commercial ones require operators to sit a private pilot theory exam and conduct a number of hours of experience with an instructor before being allowed to fly alone.

How far and high can they fly?

There’s virtually no altitude limit. The law, however, prevents most drones going above 122 metres without a special licence. Some fixed-wing drones used by the military fly at 16,800 metres to avoid planes flying at 9100 metres. Civilians’ quad-copters need to be visible to the pilot and while their remotes can work over two to three kilometres, operators generally use them within a range of 500 metres so they can see and operate them safely.

What are the regulatory limits on their use for filming and surveillance?

There are no specific rules around filming and using drones for surveillance. Despite this, operators of drones are still subject to privacy laws and council bylaws. If a council didn’t want a drone to fly at a local park or beach, for example, it could draft a law preventing their use and erect a ”Drones prohibited” sign. CASA’s director of aviation safety, John McCormick, this month told a parliamentary inquiry looking into drones’ privacy implications that the regulator had no interest in being responsible for policing any new privacy laws because it did not have the resources or budget.

What are the regulatory limits on their use for other activities?

Some companies, such as Sydney-based Flirtey and US-based Amazon, want to use drones to deliver goods. Flirtey wants to start off by delivering textbooks to university students while Amazon wants to deliver goods that are bought online from its website. Companies have also teased customers with the idea of being able to deliver pizza by drone. Many commercial operators are sceptical the current technology makes such pilotless delivery feasible.

Should I be worried?

The federal Privacy Commissioner raised concerns about drones last year, sparking the parliamentary inquiry that is due to report to government later this month. It was largely focused on the privacy aspects of drones. Concerns about air safety and terrestrial crashes are still unresolved.

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