This first appeared as a Comment in the 6 May issue of Flight International
There is no question that “drones”, at present very limited in what they are allowed to do and where, are going to be a big part of society’s future.
One of the exciting and simultaneously frightening things about their future use is that the manufacturers already have visions of new tasks – especially small ones the size of model aeroplanes – that had never been dreamed of before. But it is also true that, once the world starts using such systems widely, ideas for new tasks will breed like locusts. Indeed, a vision of skies being darkened by swarms of the things is one of the reasons some people believe that agencies like the US Federal Aviation Administration should retain a conservative view about how they should be regulated.
It is important to appreciate that there is difference in the authorities’ attitudes to the aircraft-size, payload-carrying unmanned air vehicles the military use and the small fixed-wing or quadrotor devices that can be used for surveillance and photography.
The big ones are simply banned outside war zones, and will be until a reliable and commercially viable sense-and-avoid system is developed, which is proving an elusive goal.
At present in the USA the FAA is able to consider anything that flies to be an aircraft, and thus subject it to the same rules. What is more, the commercial use of UAVs is banned, but this rule has now been successfully challenged in court by an operator who appealed against an FAA fine. The administration, however, is clearly not giving up without a fight, and the manufacturing industry is waiting with bated breath to see where this goes.
Recently, in the UK, the Civil Aviation Authority successfully prosecuted an individual flying a small device for leisure reasons, but only under the rules that require it to stay clear of restricted airspace and maintain a specified distance from people or dwellings. In other words, the CAA sees the leisure use of small UAVs as being unrestricted except by adherence to common sense safety rules. It does, however, require anyone who wishes to operate a UAV of any size to apply to it for permission, where they will have to prove competency, knowledge and insurance cover.
Whether the latter is sufficient regulation for the future is impossible to tell because it depends how many unmanned aircraft will be in use, and how responsibly they are operated. The potential for abuse is enormous, but while that may be a reason for regulating them, there is no justification for banning them.