To keep out drone trolls, legal regulations are necessary

In August 2015, the pilot of an airplane in the midst of its landing procedure at Ben Gurion near Tel Aviv in Israel, suddenly saw a quadcopter flying right of the plane at a dangerously close distance of about 100m (33ft). In compliance with aviation rules, he reported the incident to airport authorities. They started an investigation. Certainly in Israel, drones could be used for anything from plane spotting to terrorism. Drones are increasingly becoming a problem and they should not be unleashed to the broader public without establishing ground rules for their usage.

To stay within my family’s area of expertise: what is the difference between a yacht and a cargo vessel? One is for leisure while the other literally holds a commercial value in its cargo hold. Both have the right to sail the high seas with little restrictions but good seamanship and a handful of international nautical treaties. However, once they enter within the 12 nautical miles territorial waters, both need to comply with the country’s laws and regulations, which can be much stricter than international nautical rules. And as soon as they sail up a river or enter a harbour, the regulations to abide by become even more stringent.

drone

If we take drones to mean quadcopter that can be used for video shooting, drones come in the same two flavours as seagoing vessels. There are drones used by professional movie producers, e.g. to shoot high view point footage for a Hollywood movie. Since a few years we also see low-cost drones that have GPS guidance features. They require less skill to fly than the professional-use quadcopters. Those devices are purchased by amateurs as much as by aspiring pros. It’s this category that is causing the problems.

To become a professionally trained quadcopter pilot, you should take a course, just like any airplane pilot has to. I searched and found one school where you can learn everything you should know about “Unmanned Aerial Vehicles”, a term that includes quadcopter and amateur UAVs such as the DJI Phantom series. A full education, leading to a doctorate’s degree would take you some three years to finish. A pilot certificate takes 42 hours of theory and flight training and costs about $3500.

No “Youtuber” or video maker will be prepared to go through 42 hours of learning (or pay $3500, for that matter) if there’s no law or regulation forcing them to. Isn’t it strange then that we do expect a small leisure airplane pilot to take courses before they can take off? Or are we OK with that because we ourselves are at risk when flying a real plane?

My introduction shows it must be that some people just can’t get their heads around the risks they expose others to in their urge to shoot nice pictures. In the case of capturing pictures of a plane descending at a flying distance of 100m the risks should be clear. The drone pilot has no way of knowing how close exactly he is from any protruding element of the plane. The pilot may have to manoeuvre the plane closer to the drone in response to a sudden event beyond his control, etc.

In addition, most drone pilots seem to ignore the legal rights of others whom they are capturing footage of. Hanging a drone outside the neighbour’s bathroom window may sound like fun, but can we perhaps for a moment ask the drone pilot to place himself in the neighbour’s shoes? How would he feel when his neighbour would do the same to him?

If a large enough number of drone pilots — or should I refer to these people as idiots? — put others in danger or intrude into their fundamental democratic rights, they will have no-one to blame but themselves when governments create legal frameworks that outlaw the use of drones entirely or subjects them to strict licence conditions.

Some developers have seen these troubles coming and are offering solutions to stop UAV devices from intruding people’s privacy by having you subscribe to their service (NoFlyZone as reported by TechCrunch). Many drone builders will comply, if only because they fear to see a million dollar market go to waste. However, NoFlyZone won’t deter drone trolls from going to public places like the road next to an airfield and deploy their devices as they please. And let’s not forget drones that can fly at great distances are just a hack away.

You could of course argue the industry will take care of this itself, with manufacturers willing to limit the control distance of their UAVs to 30 metres or so, but as early as 2012, a website that covers hacking showed drone owners how to extend the range of their device, using the well-known and cheap Arduino electronics platform.

Hence, only legal rules will ultimately protect us from idiots who think the world revolves around them.

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