Friday TechMunch: Ready or Not, Here They Come

2014 was a year of highs and lows for drone manufacturers. A report published by the Guardian said that sales of consumer drones were up 24% but there were precious few weeks without at least one article or government expressing their done-related concerns. Today, “the ultimate toy that spans the generations” is at once an exciting, new opportunity for consumers and commerce, and a threat to national security.

In November 2014, a policy commission report, published by the University of Birmingham, outlined how terrorists could turn drones into flying bombs by attaching them up to explosive devices. The air-borne devices could also become the paparazzi’s toy of choice, thanks to their unique ability to bypass traditional methods of securing buildings. But should they be banned?

Firstly, there is the issue of enforcement. If the government should institute restrictions and penalties, who would be able to enforce them? Will the police have no choice but to buy high-performance drones to shoot down the illicit ones? Surely that would pose a risk to civilians walking underneath the aerial warfare?

We also need to remember that, while there are some potential dangers associated with drones, they could also perform valuable services. From a consumer point of view, companies such as Google and Amazon are already in the process of developing drone options that would provide within-the-hour delivery of ordered goods—without putting any more traffic onto the streets or carbon into the skies. Startups are also busy innovating with the devices. Airware and the Instant Wild project, run by the Kenya Wildlife Service, Cambridge Consultants and the Zoological Society of London, are using drones to successfully track and monitor the critically-endangered black rhino population in Africa in a bid to fight rhino poaching.

So if we don’t ban drones, how can they be made safe for the people on the ground? One suggestion is a core technology framework for collision avoidance. We can’t expect drones to have enough intelligence to avoid hitting a building, a person or a plane so a computer driven, automatic collision avoidance system could provide the needed safety measures and an emergency kill switch that would safely bring down a drone that poses a threat.

Beyond these technical issues, we will also need to debate what is socially acceptable in order to create legal frameworks. Should drones be allowed to fly over towns, cities and private property at all, or should they be limited to public roads between droneports? Should private drones equipped with cameras be permitted to film and monitor people or events? As is always the case whenever a new technology is developed with the potential to cause damage or harm people, these discussions are vital. The UK and the rest of the world will have to carefully consider the limits of just how much commercial drone activity is safe.

Ultimately, while the drone revolution comes with its fair share of risks, if the safety and regulatory obstacles can be overcome, drones could be well worth the challenge, generating a vast amount of economic activity in the United Kingdom. Drones are limited only by our own imagination – from stunning aerial filming and photography to animal conservation and lightning-fast shopping. 2014 raised many questions surrounding the use of drones, 2015 hopefully will erase any doubts we as society have about drones and begin tackle those underlying issues.