The media attention surrounding drones has become almost laughably bipolar. On one side, there are those hailing unmanned aerial vehicles as the greatest gift to every industry from deliveries to window cleaning.
On the other there is a crescendo of opprobrium suggesting that modern drones are the thin end of a wedge that leads down all manner of Orwellian, apocalyptic roads.
Oklahoma, for example, is mulling a bill which would allow homeowners to gun down drones above their own property. Some other headlines from the week’s news include ‘Drunken droning fuels regulation debate’, ‘What happens when terrorists start using drones against us?’ and ‘The drone catcher: Flying net is designed to stop terrorists from flying bomb-laden gadgets into nuclear power stations’.
But away from the controversial use of Predators on the battlefield, drone technology, and usage, continues to grow. When Amazon Prime announced that it would use delivery drones in December, there was widespread derision. Little did many know that in German logistics giant DHL, Amazon had the perfect litmus test.
In September DHL rolled out its ‘parcelcopter’, a diminutive unmanned aircraft that travels 12km from the German mainland to the North Sea island of Juist, home to some 1,500 people, delivering mail. Each flight is fully automated and monitored constantly. It’s a small project, relatively speaking. But according to the company it has proved a hit with local constituents.
But just as Germany has been a big source of positive news for drone enthusiasts, and salespeople, there has been plenty of dubious nachrichten emanating from the country. Last month a drone carrying a mobile phone, a USB stick and two grammes of cannabis crash-landed atop a prison in Hamburg.
Ten grammes of marijuana made it to another penitentiary in the northwestern city of Bremen in December, sparking a debate at state level about how to keep Germany safe despite a proliferation of commercial and noncommercial drones. Last month alone, 200,000 drones were sold worldwide.
Sven Manske, of the University of Duisburg-Essen’s Collide research group, has advocated for the use of drone identifying chips, which he likens to car registration. One solution, he says, could be the use of an eFUSE-like system protecting a unique identification number of the drone. “Drone detection/tracking and jamming on the other side could be used to complement this,” he adds. “Especially in the low-end consumer sector, drones use common technologies with its common problems. As one of the possibilities, a jammer could probably block wifi channels to prevent a drone to be controlled.”
Some companies, such as Chicago-based NoFlyZone, have already begun catering to this concept. NoFlyZone users can sign up to prevent drones flying above their home’s airspace. If drone use “feels crappy and invasive to you,” write’s Slate’s Lily Hay Newman, “there’s something you can do.”
Other worries include the proliferation of operating drones while intoxicated, an activity which is arguably not covered by drink-driving laws. It was a ‘drunk droner’ who last month ditched his quadcopter in the White House’s ground, launching all kinds of security-based outcries in the media.The president’s concerns might not have as much truck with families in rural Yemen. But they do highlight growing calls to legislate for drone use, as well as the possibility to license their use.
Manske disagrees: “If one decides for a drone registration then this needs to be forced by law – otherwise such registration numbers would be optional for manufacturers and miss their goal. If drones reach the territory of air-traffic control or are used for criminal activities like drug transportation, then we already have clear regulations and laws.”
Benjamin Granet, of Canada’s Dronexperts.com, agrees that calls for a crackdown are premature. “As cars are bringing a lot to the society, they are also posing a lot of problems. How many tonnes of drugs are transported around Europe in car trunks? We don’t know. How many people die every year in car accidents? 30,000 in 2011.
“Other than in military uses, drones haven’t killed anyone in more than five years of existence,” he adds.
“And the amount of drugs carried by them is probably ridiculous – ten grammes in the Bremen case (for the majority of readers who aren’t frequent drug users, ten grammes is not a huge amount).” In Canada, Granet points out, people already require a license for the commercial use of drones.
“It’s not a new technology and it’s misuse, it’s (governments’) incapability to solve a really old problem: criminality and drugs.”
Bureaucracy and drones
Rob Tiebie, of the Netherlands’ Dronexpert.nl, disagrees, but not for the reasons one might assume. He laments the bureaucratic hoops commercial drone users must jump through in order to fly, claiming it holds back the good they can do. “The fire department in the Netherlands is not able to fly with drones because of the laws,” he says, “which is a pity.”
The stramash surrounding drones has all been done before, says Unmanned Experts’ Keven Gambold. “Remember when mobile phones gave you brain cancer and blew up petrol stations,” he says.
“Three years ago the term ‘drone’ in the public perception meant an armed Predator conducting extra-judicial killings of civilians in far off lands,” Gambold adds. “But today it means these small quadcopters that everyone’s niece has. They are still in the news for the wrong reasons mostly, but more and more people are ‘playing’ with them and understand the narrative better.
“The good news stories will start to filter out and the public perception will change.”
One thing that will add to that sentiment is the use of drones across an ever-expanding scope of industries. Drones have already begun to revolutionalize the way news and documentary films are made, and in some quarters they are already a staple of wedding photography and production. Rob Tiebie is excited that, in the past 12 months, drones have become able to record in 4k quality – and sees a huge potential in agriculture – where farmers can monitor far-flung crops.
A favorite of Keven Gambold’s is traffic: “We just finished a trial where we used one to map a mock traffic accident in less than half the time it traditionally takes. That is less road-blocks and less police officers on the roadside at risk. Currently my favorite, but there will be a new one next week no doubt!”
Autonomy, he adds, should be the next big step in drone development, which would spark something of an arms race between drone and counter-drone technology. But drone use by governments and police organizations has raised a number of issues surrounding privacy.
Drones used in protests
Recent political demonstrations worldwide have experienced government drones flying overhead, noting participants and examining ways to quell unrest. This might be handy in some situations, but what if drones were used against civil rights campaigners in Ferguson, or Maidan protesters in Kiev? Opinions on the goodness of drone use are often, like politics, relative.
Last week a Reuters/Ipso poll of 2,000 people showed 42% of respondents opposed the private ownership of drones, and were concerned about privacy and safety. Sven Manske is wary of the implications for the technology’s future, alluding to the use of social media.
“I think drones are like most of our modern technologies a real enrichment for society,” he says. “But we need to know how we can make this technology work for us without losing control. Like social media websites and internet and communication technology found its way to our personal and professional life, drones possibly already reached our private sectors.
“In our life as researchers in the field of collaborative learning with online experimentation, we need to handle very sensitive information, particularly the digital traces of young students in school,” he adds. “Nowadays people realize they should not put all the personal information into the cloud. If we think of drones as devices extending our digital space and identities through capturing us with different sensors reaching new parts of our lives leading to new traces of us, we definitely need to obtain an awareness for this problem of privacy as well,” concludes Manske.
Drones are not the future. They are the here and now, and there are too many being sold, and too many profit points, for their proliferation to stop. The question is, can we have a world with drones, and be as safe, and hold onto as much privacy, as we did before they came along? If not, heads may have to be scratched at a far higher level.