THE DRONE MENACE will only be solved by introducing a register of owners, according to police and aviation experts speaking at the Web Summit show in Dublin.
Drones are certainly big business, with one million expected to sell this Christmas alone. At Web Summit, they were also the big draws for the assembled thousand of tech experts, who huddled around any demo on the show floor watching in amazement.
Even the world's media, usually the hardest to impress species around, were happy to stand in the drizzle outside the back of the press room when it came to a drone being demoed.
But chief inspector Nick Aldworth of the Metropolitan Police [pictured centre below] was less enthused by unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), warning of the many dangers and risks they pose in their current unregulated state.
Over the past 18 months, Aldworth has been working with a small group of relevant parties, trying to bring some cohesion to this emerging risk that currently has no formal police perspective or position, "but also what we see as an emerging opportunity", he said.
Ralph James of the Irish Aviation Authority (IAA) [pictured right above] agreed there needed to be a more formal system for drone use.
"On a personal level, I have a hobby of photography so I can immediately see all the pluses. But at the same time, aviation is probably the most heavily regulated industry that we have, not without reason, and so we need to find the balance between the two worlds," he said.
James pointed out that while flying a drone over Dublin is illegal, anyone visiting YouTube will be able to see countless videos of people doing just that.
"People don't realise they're doing wrong," he added. "We're trying to develop regulations for people who don't realise what they're doing is aviation."
In the US, the government is considering a registration programme for UAVs, in the same way you'd have to register a dog or gun. Or perhaps a cat, which would save time on registering twice if you then wanted to turn your departed feline into a drone.
James agreed there should definitely be a drone register across Ireland for security purposes and also to stop people from worrying that their privacy in being invaded.
Aldworth agreed the space should be regulated and said certainly there should be a UK register to prevent more malevolent use.
He cited the eco-activist who dropped radioactive material onto the prime minister's house in Tokyo, and small drones that have been used to attack people in London.
"We have a prankster group in London who film silly stunts, flying a drone through a shopping centre and bumping into people. Only last week we found someone on eBay selling a six-bladed copter with a paintball gun attached underneath, which is ostensibly quite good fun if you're a paintballer," he said.
"But extrapolate that through a ceremonial event in central London and that creates a whole new world of risk for us."
James also warned of the consequences if drones were flying around other aircraft, and got sucked into engines causing the plane to crash.
In the UK, there is a low appetite for risk around UAV technology, with Aldworth noting that the country has seen two successful prosecutions against drone owners. "They resulted in probably the biggest fines I've seen in 25 years of policing - £1,800, which for a sole operator fine from a magistrates court is significant," he said.
Aldworth also wants to see drone makers doing more to minimise the risks.
"The principal problem is preventing this technology from interfacing with aviation or established security installations, there's a very easy way to mitigate that and stop them technically coming into that environment in the first place via geo-fencing."
However, he also acknowledged the potential benefits of UAVs.
"Any circumstance where you need to convey equipment or visual technology to a particular location, it would appear we're on the threshold of being able to do that cheaper and faster," Aldworth said.
"I work for an organisation that's probably got to find about £1bn of cuts in the next four to five years. I could definitely see some core elements of policing being taken over by using drones; we're starting to do that already, for surveillance and being able to look beyond 2D images, or defibrillators being delivered by drones." µ
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