For decades, the pilotless flying devices known as drones were the purview of the military and a cadre of hard-core civilian hobbyists, since they were prohibitively expensive and exceedingly difficult to operate. But an explosion of cheaper computing power, motion sensors and batteries changed all that. Now, inexpensive four-rotor drones have automatic stabilizers that make them easier to fly, and millions are sold worldwide each year. The advent of high-definition cameras and laser-based radar has made them an increasingly tempting bird’s-eye-view tool for farmers checking their crops and insurance adjusters surveying storm damage. Technology behemoths such as Amazon.com Inc. and Alphabet Inc. are racing to develop drones capable of delivering packages to people’s homes. U.S. federal and local governments are grinding away on rules meant to meet the sometimes contradictory goals of protecting both the public’s privacy and its safety.
In a stark demonstration of the disruptive power of drones — as well as the difficulties in regulating and tracking them — Britain’s second-busiest airport, London’s Gatwick, was shut by drones that buzzed illegally around the hub for 36 hours during the pre-Christmas travel rush. The incident drone boosters concerned that political reaction may hinder the rapid growth of the industry. The European Union is working toward new bloc-wide rules, to be adopted as soon as over the next year, which would require all civilian drones to be registered, allowing for remote identification of the aircraft. The U.S. is the largest civilian market for drones and leads the rest of the world by far in investment and developing a regulatory framework. Close to a million hobbyists have registered at least one drone since the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration began compiling a list of owners in 2015. Another 110,000 people licensed to fly the gadgets commercially have registered 236,000 additional vehicles. Regulations generally require that they be flown during the day and kept within 400 feet (122 meters) of the ground, within sight of the operator. They’re also generally restricted around airports, military bases, hazardous conditions such as wildfires and sports stadiums during events. NASA is working on the framework for a low-altitude air-traffic system.
Drones can be traced back to World War I. The 1917 Kettering Aerial Torpedo, known as the “Bug,” was designed to fly in a straight line until a timer cut the engine, dropping the plane and its bomb — hardly a precise approach. Germany’s V-1 rocket worked much the same way, with better navigation. Military drones can now linger over terrorist dens in places such as Afghanistan for hours at a time and launch missiles — all while under the command of a pilot halfway around the world. It’s one thing to fly in the empty skies of a remote war zone and quite another in the busy airways over the U.S. In February 2018, a helicopter pilot told investigators his attempts to avoid a civilian drone caused him to crash in South Carolina; the drone pilot was not found.
Finding a solution to protect airports may not be easy: tests of anti-drone systems in the U.S. concluded they were unreliable, prone to false alarms and would potentially interfere with other airport-based radios. Security and law-enforcement officials also worry about terrorist or criminal attacks, anxieties that were heightened after an assassination attempt on Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro in August that used two drones rigged with explosives. Government agencies want a mandatory system to identify and track unmanned vehicles. Shenzhen, China-based SZ DJI Technology Co., the world’s largest manufacturer of small drones, wants regulators to track vehicles through their existing radio transmitters, while commercial operators would prefer adding new transmitters that allow for longer-range tracking. For their part, civil rights groups worry about threats to privacy, which could range from nude photographs taken through bathroom windows to police spying. They have called for rules limiting law enforcement agencies to using drones in emergencies, to collect evidence of a crime or with a warrant. Meanwhile, the Uniform Law Commission, which promotes standardized statutes for states, has proposed giving land owners the right to sue over any trespass into the airspace above their properties up to 200 feet.
To contact the author of this QuickTake: Alan Levin in Washington at firstname.lastname@example.org
To contact the editor responsible for this QuickTake: John O’Neil at email@example.com, Anne Cronin
First published April 24, 2015
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