Drone market set for take off but laws governing their use hit turbulence
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The widespread use of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), or drones, in European skies is likely within the decade if EU and US plans to create a lucrative new aerospace market come to pass.The advanced technology used in drones, traditionally associated with military surveillance and targeting, has prompted concerns by privacy advocates, civil liberties groups and legislators about possible misuse and the expansion of the surveillance state.
Once limited to war zones and books, small unmanned aircraft with video capability are readily available and can be purchased in toy shops or over the internet.
European and US authorities are now hoping to profit from the creation of a larger commercial drone market which, by UK aerospace group Astrea’s estimate, could be worth over $60 billion per annum by 2020. Initiating plans for the use of drones for private and commercial use last February, the US Congress gave the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) until September 2015 to open American civil airspace for their use.
A European Commission (EC) working paper published in September 2012 urges member states to develop an EU-wide plan to ensure drones are safely integrated into common aviation traffic by 2016. The paper, entitled Towards a European Strategy for the Development of Civil Applications of Remotely Piloted Aircraft Systems (RPAS), enthusiastically predicts that many more applications and uses will emerge once the technology is widely disseminated.
Unmanned aerial vehicles already make up the aerospace industry’s most dynamic growth sector with an estimated 400 drone applications already in development across the EU. The working paper predicts the new market will support substantial economic growth and generate thousands of highly skilled jobs.
A number of groups representing manufacturers, operators and regulatory authorities are already working closely together to bring about the proposed integration of unmanned aerial systems into civilian airspace.
The European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) advises the EU on the drafting of aviation legislation and is in the process of introducing pan-European legislation to cover the operation of systems with a mass of 150kg or more.
National authorities will remain responsible for regulating smaller aircraft and in Ireland the Irish Aviation Authority (IAA) will be responsible for legislation governing use of systems less than 150kg.
Proponents cite many practical uses ranging from search and rescue to checking pipelines for leaks, fire-fighting, and monitoring fish stock levels.
In March 2011, a drone was used to survey the damaged Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant shortly after the plant suffered a partial meltdown.
However, it is the very appeal of the capabilities offered by this technology that has caused alarm in some quarters.
The technical sophistication and ability of such craft to stay airborne for lengthy periods of time combined with the ability to mount general surveillance of the population could be used to infringe on fundamental privacy rights, opponents say.
With drones the size of hummingbirds already available new capabilities are emerging all the time.
High-quality camera equipment capable of advanced thermal and infra-red imaging can see through walls and the technology exists for them to use facial recognition technology to track individuals based on their physical attributes.
Not only is video capture technology developing at lightning pace but the ability to keep drones airborne for longer is also improving. Lockheed Martin has developed a drone called the Stalker which can be powered from the ground by laser, allowing it in excess of 48 hours continuous flight.
Some have also predicted that they could be used to carry weaponised systems such as tasers or more lethal equipment.
The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) says protections must be put in place to ensure that drones are only used responsibly and consistently with democratic values. Warning that routine aerial surveillance “would profoundly change the character of public life in the United States”, the union has called on the US government to place restrictions on retention of and access to data collected by drones.