Since 2010, drones have “reinvented” the urban air mobility sector as much as perhaps the first railroad had revolutionized transportation in the 19th century.
The Drone Age
Drones are no new story. The first ones – though with no similarity with today’s drones – were just unmanned balloons carrying explosives during the attack of Austria on Venice in 1849.
The quadcopter configuration of modern drones saw its first development in 1907 when Breguet brothers along with professor Richet managed to create a gyroplane, a forerunner of the helicopter.
The first aircraft without a pilot and with a radio guidance system was developed a bit later by a British engineer, in 1916, after the outbreak of World War I. During the ’30s and ’40s, other major leaps forward in military drone technology were made, with the most notable example being the V-1 “Doodlebugs” of the German army in the Second World War, that were effectively the world’s first-ever cruise-missiles.
The next big step in drone technology occurred during the Vietnam War, when drones were used by the army for reconnaissance, as decoys in combat, for launching missiles against fixed targets, and for dropping leaflets for psychological operations. In the proceeding years, a number of milestones in the history of drones were recorded: mini recreational radio-controlled aircrafts were sold to civilians, solar powered drones were developed, small sized surveillance drones were used in the war in Afghanistan, and the first commercial drone permit was issued in the US in 2006.
A “golden” revolution
Then came the decades of 2000 and especially 2010 onwards that can be characterized as the “golden age” of drones. Since then, drones have “reinvented” the urban air mobility sector as much as perhaps the first railroad had revolutionized transportation in the 19th century. Although drones were originally built for military purposes as we saw before, technical developments and advancements (e.g. in lightweight materials and on-board computers) have made drones increasingly popular for civil uses also.
The interest of the private sector and individuals around drones has gone through the ceiling with a massive growth in demand for drone permits. In 2015 around 1000 commercial drone permits were issued in the US, while currently there are 873,450 registered drones, commercial and recreational. In the EU, numbers are also impressive. According to a European Parliament’s research in 2015, it was then estimated that until 2025, the potential scale of the drone market could worth 10% of the EU aviation market (i.e. about €15 billion per year) and by 2050, according to European Commission, would create 150.000 jobs in the EU.
Nowadays, drones are used for a wide range of functions, like monitoring climate change, delivering goods and medical equipment, aiding in search and rescue operations, scientific exploration, 3-D mapping, logistics and delivery services, professional photography and filmmaking, entertainment, wildlife protection and agriculture, and the list goes on. Drones have been extremely useful in areas such as infrastructure maintenance, leading to reduced time, costs, effort and personnel needed in routine inspections and reparation procedures of public transportation, highways, railways, mining complexes, factories, pipelines, oil rigs or even private vehicles and households. A significant number of science fields – like archaeology, speleology, biology and meteorology – have also been aided by the use of drones. Not to mention, the use of drones for space exploration; in April 2021, NASA’s Ingenuity helicopter flew on Mars for the first time, taking a photo of Mars’ surface and of its own shadow!
What if you want to lie topless in your garden?
The main concern is privacy, right? People commonly fear that drones invade their privacy and capture their most intimate moments when flying in residential areas. Also, not knowing if there is a camera, for what purpose the drone is being used and by whom, intensifies these concerns and can create a “chilling effect” in citizens (individuals may perform a form of self-preservation/ self-censorship by restricting their behavior when they are – or believe that they are – being watched). With the increasing capacity of drones to collect all sorts of data, it is possible that they will be used by corporations or government agencies in uncontrolled and unlicensed ways. Except for privacy, what is at stake here is also the freedom to express one’s identity and ways of representation.
The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) underlines the danger of becoming a “surveillance” society if drones can monitor, track, record and scrutinize our every move. ACLU expresses some rising concerns that drones equipped with facial recognition software, infrared technology, and speakers capable of monitoring personal conversations, would cause an unprecedented invasion of our privacy rights. Drones could enable mass tracking of vehicles and people in wide areas, or they could go completely unnoticed while peering into the window of a home, an event or place of worship.
Who is flying it & why?
In a research done by Embry–Riddle Aeronautical University (ERAU) in the US, it was noted that one important factor affecting public concern is “who is flying the drone”. People said that they were less concerned about hobbyists, construction and real estate companies, and more concerned about drones owned by the government, military or law enforcement. Unmarked drones generated the most privacy concerns. Generally speaking, members of the public are not particularly in favor of any drones flying over their homes or land. More specifically about the police, they said that their concerns were much lower when the police indicated that they would only use the drones for specific missions and not on a continuous basis. In other words, if the police were simply responding to an event, then that was okay. Flying drones 24/7 over their neighborhoods was not okay. In another study carried out in December 2017 by Pew Research Center in the US, 54% of the public thought drones should not be allowed to fly near people’s homes.
In a different research, conducted in 2020 by Civil Aviation Authority of Singapore (CAAS) and the Nanyang Technological University (NTU), researchers showed that the majority of people supported the drone use for search and rescue, while much fewer supported the use for transporting people for commercial or industrial reasons. In general, drone uses that serve to benefit society at large (e.g. search and rescue, and disaster management) have higher public support than drone uses that only benefit individuals (e.g. photography/videography), or impact individuals negatively (e.g. issuing speeding and parking tickets). In an EASA study about societal acceptance of Urban Air Mobility in Europe, one result among others, is that EU citizens, initially and spontaneously, express a positive attitude toward UAM; it is seen as a new and attractive means of mobility and a majority is ready to try it out.
It is ok to watch all the others, but not me.
Political affiliation seems to have a very strong effect on support for police drones. In the previously mentioned research by ERAU, 973 participants said their opinion about police drones flying over large gatherings. People categorized as conservatives were more supportive of the police drones over a liberal protest, while liberals were more supportive of the drones over a conservative rally. In other words, everybody wants the police to monitor others, but not themselves!
How can we limit intrusive drone usage?
The debate is fierce with drones’ advocates raising another logical argument; why don’t we have the same concerns over satellites and CCTV cameras, which have already entered our daily life and can become as intrusive as drones? Some experts note that while it is understandable that the general population has concerns over their privacy, future technologies along with the right regulations would enable drones to operate in urban areas with minimum compromise on people’s privacy.
The ACLU in the US recommends some reasonable safeguards concerning drones’ usage limits, the data retention, the decision making, the accountability and the weapons. They say that a drone should be deployed for prevention of criminal activities and for data retention only by a warrant and only when there are grounds that it will collect considerable evidence. They believe that only our political representatives should decide about the use of drones with clear open policies and not the police departments. They note that domestic drone usage should be subject to strict audits and drones should not carry weapons of any kind.
In an article by the EU think tank ERPS (European Parliamentary Research Service), an interesting idea for reducing public concern about privacy came up, proposing the creation of a website or mobile app that could inform citizens about the drones flying in their area, about the drone’s mission, the type of data collected and the operator’s identity. In the case of agriculture – a great area of concern – if drones carry and release chemicals, then this could be reported and monitored.
Europe’s legal boundaries on data protection
In Europe, the use of aerial photography, surveillance and other applications made possible by drones, is covered by Article 7 (Respect for private and family life) and Article 8 (Data protection – Personal and sensitive personal information) of the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union. Also by Article 8 (Right to Respect for private life) of the European Convention on Human rights. Additionally, the processing of any personal data that could lead to the recognition or identification of a person may also be in breach of national laws, as a result of the General Data Protection Regulation (EU) 2016/679. This may be the case if you share or publish an image via internet (to an indefinite number of people) of a person who can be identified in that image.
What about public safety and regulation?
With 872,605 drones currently registered in the USA according to Federal Aviation Administration and with the global number of mass market drones expected to reach 35 million units by 2022 according to European Investment Bank – of which some 25% in Europe – it is no surprise that some notable accidents would happen, though leading to minor human injuries. It is a fact that recreational drones are responsible for most accidents and near accidents, as they are used more in the public space and with less supervision. In contrast, industrial drones are operated in strictly defined locations, like industrial sites and other protected locations, which presents much less risk for people. Most of them also have a built-in mechanism which prevents the drone from operating in unsolicited areas.
Some notable drone accidents
In relation to airport safety, since the start of 2020, major drone-incident disruptions have occurred at large airports such as Madrid, Frankfurt and Riga, as well as Manchester in the UK. The latest major event, also in Frankfurt, caused flight diversions on February 21, 2021. Following these events, the European Union Aviation Safety Agency (EASA), issued in March 2021, guidelines for management of drone incidents at airports.
More minor incidents this year are recorded in the US and in Munich, Germany. The first is about a man who was arrested for crashing his drone onto the roof of 3 World Trade Center in New York. The latter concerns the drone used during Bayern football team’s on field training, which suddenly crashed on a tree, without harming any player.
In January 2015, a drone crashed right on the lawn in front of the White House in Washington, DC. when an inebriated government officer had flown the drone from an apartment located near the
official residence of the US. president, and lost control of it. In December 2018, drones paralyzed London’s Gatwick Airport. Planes were grounded for more than a day because of reports of drones over the airfield, which mysteriously appeared whenever the airport tried to reopen. The incident affected 140,000 passengers while about a thousand flights had to be canceled. In 2017, a drone struck a commercial aircraft at Quebec. Emergency measures were immediately put in place, the plane was able to land safely and no injuries were reported. In 2016, a drone crash at the top of a tower in Seattle almost led to tragedy. Also in 2016, a drone filming a train in Britain, snagged a track-side tree and its camera flew off into one of the rail cars. Fortunately, no one was hurt. In 2017, a drone filming a cyclist race in California, crashed into a tree and fell onto the track. A drone fragment got caught in the front wheel of a cyclist, without causing any harm. In a different occasion a drone flew into the power line in a town of West Hollywood, causing a three-hour blackout.
The absolute need for a regulatory framework
In the USA, the Federal Aviation Association issued in December 2020 final rules requiring remote identifications for drones. This ID provides a “digital license plate” for unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) or drones that will broadcast the identity of the drone and its control station, without using internet connection. All drones must either be manufactured with broadcast remote ID or be
retrofitted with the technology, with some restrictions. These new rules come into effect from April 2021, while more rules will be rolled out in the next three years, allowing for increased home deliveries of cargo.
In Europe, the European Union Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) recently passed new regulations concerning the use of drones in the European Union. EU member states along with Norway, Iceland, Liechtenstein, and the UK now fall under the same regulatory blanket, while before, each country had its own set of rules. These uniform regulations cover both hobbyist and commercial drone operators and reflect a risk-based approach. Small drones will now need to be registered with the National Aviation Authority (NAA) of one’s EU country of residence – unless the drone weighs less than 250g and is either a toy or has no camera or other sensor that can detect personal data – so authorities can trace reckless flying back to the owners. Drone operators are required to get training for higher risk operations, insurance and appropriate NAA flight authorization for the relevant geographical zone.
There are three categories covering standard requirements for both operators and their drones:
- Low-risk or open-category drones will not require authorization but will be subject to strict operational limitations.
- Medium-risk or specific-category drones will need authorization from the national aviation authority on the basis of a risk assessment.
- High-risk or certified-category drones will need to follow aviation rules, and this will apply to future drone flights with passengers.