From the moment I first came across them, I’ve been terrified of drones. Autonomous, unnervingly-advanced flying machines capable of causing unbelievable levels of destruction. Since they were first deployed for military purposes by the US government around a decade ago, military drones are estimated to have killed up to around 6,000 people across Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia. At home, of course, it’s a rather different story.
In the UK, drones are establishing themselves as everyday objects. Consumer interest is rocketing, and for obvious reasons. Companies like DJI, Parrot and 3DR have brought an impressive range of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) to the market, and many of us see them as little more than high-powered toys. Must-have Christmas gadgets. A gateway to a new weekend hobby. But serious issues remain.
So What’s the Problem?
There’s a drone for everyone, and some models come seriously cheap. Whether you want something that can entertain the kids, a contraption your pet rodent can sail on or one that can capture images that would rival those snapped by a camera crew on a helicopter, you’re spoilt for choice.
Which is why they’re still leaving behind a trail of trouble, though the situation abroad has been flipped on its head over here. With so many options available, consumer UAVs are becoming frustratingly tricky to police. As more and more people decide they need to fill that newfound hole in their lives with a flying lump of plastic and metal, it’s becoming increasingly clear that even mini drones are capable of causing chaos.
UK Drone Law
The Civil Aviation Authority (CAA), which is responsible for investigating the risks posed to manned aircraft by drones, has established ‘The Dronecode’, a short list of rules to be followed by drone users. Here are the basic guidelines:
- Make sure you can see your drone at all times and don’t fly higher than 400 feet
- Always keep your drone away from aircraft, helicopters, airports and airfields
- Use your common sense and fly safely
- Don’t fly camera-equipped drones within 50m of people, vehicles, buildings or structures, or over congested areas or large gatherings
Pretty simple, right? Sadly not. Since there are different types of drone available to enthusiasts, there are a number of variations on the rules. People using small drones (under 20kg) for aerial work purposes like data acquisition and surveillance, for instance, are required to gain special permission from the CAA before taking to the skies within 150m of a 1,000-strong gathering of people, or within 50m of any person, vessel, vehicle or structure not under the control of the flier. Right.
On the other hand, provided you’re only in it for the fun and you keep your drone well away from other people and buildings, you don’t need to wait for the green light from the CAA in order to do your thing. Confused yet? There’s more.
Beyond the Rulebook
Even with the guidelines in place, free will is difficult to control. For instance, if somebody really wanted to strap a water balloon filled with piss and fly it across to Downing Street – heaven knows why – they theoretically could. That’s where geofencing comes in.
An ever-increasing number of drones, DJI’s Phantom line, for example, are being programmed not to enter certain airspace. Through geofencing, the coordinates of airports and other sensitive areas are baked into a drone’s system, forcing it to land when it turns up somewhere it shouldn’t be.
It’s a clever solution, which has the full backing of the British Airline Pilots’ Association, but it’s also gained a lot of critics. The most obvious drawback of geofencing is that it’s not being used by all manufacturers. If you wanted to buy a model from a manufacturer that doesn’t use geo-fencing technology, there’s absolutely nothing stopping you.
There’s the issue of data accuracy too. We spoke to 3DR’s Roger Sollenberger, who isn’t convinced that geofencing is the way ahead. “Geofencing is a generally acceptable solution for many scenarios, but it isn’t what I would call a comprehensive solution,” said Sollenberger. “For one, someone might have legitimate clearance or a permit to fly in an area where a company prohibited their drones from flying. And if someone wants to get around geofencing badly enough, it’s a lot of work, but they can.
What Drone Should I Buy?
Cheap Drone: Hubsan Q4 Nano
The Hubsan Q4 Nano Quadcopter is one of the cheapest drones you can get your hands on.
Middling: AR Parrot 2.0
If you’ve already got a taste for drones, the £270 AR Parrot 2.0 will slake your thirst.
Drone King: 3DR Solo
The big boy. The 3DR Solo mentioned above is a £1,000 beast with a giant box of tricks.