As the drone era has taken off let’s ensure our safety and privacy

With businesses latching on to technology, regulating this rapidly growing sector has become paramount

It's Saturday afternoon at the Aviva. As Ireland and Wales emerge on the sun-bleached pitch to see out this Six Nations Championship, the crowd rises in a crescendo of applause and whistles.

There is a buzz in the air. Not atmosphere: a distinct, aggravating buzz that gets louder and louder. A black dot lifts high over the West Stand – then another to the East and another, humming its way out over the field.

Soon the machines multiply at such a rate their shadows dance on the grass among the players. The drones have arrived. The match is being recorded. You are being recorded.

This is not dystopian fantasy. In fact, if anything, this imaginary scenario is becoming very real, very quickly. While drones have not yet manifested themselves in large numbers at highly subscribed public events, it may only be a matter of time.


In Ireland, and across the world, the popularity of ‘drones’ – otherwise known as remotely piloted aircraft systems Rpas), ‘copters’ or ‘unmanned aerial vehicles’ – is taking off.

As their potential increases – delivering goods, recording live events, following individual users – so do sales in both amateur and professional circles. There are about 4,000 in Ireland so far.

"Somebody once said to me that they look upon a drone as a spider upside down and I never thought about it until I started looking at them," says Damian Doyle of Copter Shop Ireland, which holds the Irish licence for DJI (DaJiang Innovations) products.

Public fascination

Despite this sci-fi-esque description of flying, mechanical insects, Doyle is at the centre of a surge in public fascination, as is DJI. The Chinese manufacturer enjoys 70 per cent market share and is valued at €8.9 billion. It expects to make €178 million in profits this year.

Today, drones are out of the box and in the air within an hour. The simplicity is part of the appeal.

“In the last year in particular we have nearly trebled out sales which is great,” says Doyle. In that time they have sold about 30 systems valued at about €10,000 each, up from five or six in previous years.

There are three categories of DJI products. The common ‘Phantom’ for hobbyists costs between €1,000 and €1,500; the mid-range ‘Inspire’ (about €3,500); and the ‘S Range’ with those spider-like arms, built to carry high-end cameras, costs between €9,000 and €15,000.

Much of this hike in sales is because, says Doyle, “a lot more people want to go professional”.

That observation is borne out in the figures. By the end of this year the Irish Aviation Authority (IAA) is expected to hit the 100 mark in terms of commercial operating licences. It is a measure of what's happening around the world – professional applications are increasing.

At a recent drone event at Weston Airport, the Minister for Transport Paschal Donohoe said future controls would be paramount in "a sector that is likely to be gigantic in the coming years".

“I can see a day in which many different companies could be looking to use these units for jobs and for services that at the moment might appear very, very difficult to do,” he said.

“It’s very likely that somewhere within the world we will see these units begin to be used quite soon for things like books, maybe medicines and maybe other services and goods that are in demand. This is a technology that is evolving at massive pace.”

Doyle has seen this at the coalface. Initially selling to photographers, he has in more recent times been dealing with builders, surveyors and other professions.

“There is no industry out there that isn’t using it; everyone is, in one shape or another. Website designers are using them to take stock photographs,” he says.

While drone delivery is almost certain, Doyle says not for at least another five years. That’s mainly due to battery life, currently averaging 20 minutes.

Crow flies

But, he continues, delivery companies could set up recharging depots around the country and while drones are slower than trucks, the removal of traffic and circuitous road networks means they will literally travel as the crow flies.

Today the conversation is quickly shifting toward regulation and the need for a stronger regime. This perceived urgency is summarised with three words: safety, security, privacy.

Only last month, Lufthansa pilots approaching Warsaw Airport in Poland scolded air traffic control, telling them to "control your airspace", as the airline with 108 passengers came within 100 metres of a rogue drone. Police and military helicopters, quickly scrambled, found nothing.

In April, a small drone, reportedly tinged with radioactive material, was found on the roof of the Japanese prime minister's office, sparking concerns over their potential for terrorist acts. This may not be hysteria: in January another drone crashed onto the lawn of the White House, while in Germany a few days later one crashed near the German chancellor Angela Merkel under the noses of her (essentially helpless) security detail.

Whether these incidents are early symptoms of an emerging problem, or comical blips in a benevolent industry, lawmakers are starting to take notice.

"There is a real need now within Ireland and within Europe to look at what kind of laws will be needed now and in the future to deal with matters in relation to security, in relation to privacy and in relation to how different kinds of units will be regulated," Mr Donohoe pointed out.

Safety is a considerable driving force too, although this hasn't really arisen as an issue. Declan Mullen, an instructor at Ireland's iFly Technology, quotes a statistic from the Roswell Flight Test Crew in the US, which builds and tests the machines.

“Of all of the drones that were sold in the States last year – and you are probably talking about a quarter of a million – the incidents that are well known are about five or six so they don’t really show up even as a statistic,” he says, but adds cautiously: “That’s not to say they aren’t crashing.”

DJI is taking all this onboard. For instance, newer models will automatically return home when they have just 10 per cent of battery power remaining.

There are other teething problems. The ‘fly-away’ for instance, where copters, literally, inexplicably disappear. “The unit itself just does its own thing,” explains Doyle. “It can be up at 60 metres and all of a sudden it would just head out to sea and you never see it again.” But, he adds, technology is overtaking this bizarre gremlin.

The fly-away may be linked to solar flares, the same phenomenon that makes your car appear to drive in a field beside the road on sat-navs screens.

Then there is the less mentioned potential for noise pollution. As Mullen puts it: “If you stick 200 of these into an area how do you deal with all that noise?”

Actually, privacy is more of a concern given the drones' ability to go anywhere and shoot footage. Legal action is a virtual certainty. "I have no doubt that it is going to happen," says barrister Julie Garland, chair of the Unmanned Aircraft Association of Ireland (UAAI) and an authority on aviation law.

Ethical use

“When we have people on our training courses one of the things that we encourage is very much the ethical use of a drone. If you wouldn’t take the photograph that you are taking with your mobile phone, then you shouldn’t take it with your drone.” But then who can tell if the paparazzi are listening.

Ireland is already ahead of other EU countries for regulation but it is a constantly evolving process.

For instance, an IAA circular Q&A on operating drones sets out strict rules – including no flying over built-up or congested areas – that are about to be shredded and replaced.

New rules for hobbyists are currently being drawn up to replace 15-year-old legislation – the Rockets and Small Aircraft Order 2000 – designed for model aircraft and criticised by many in the industry as wholly wanting (one provision sets out that no animals, attached to a parachute or not, should be dropped from the sky).

For commercial operators, the laws are newer and more stringent. They set down a template covering the need for pilots to receive training and for commercial operators to provide a detailed plan of its proposed operations before being licensed.

At European level too, moves are afoot. The European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) has been tasked with ensuring "secure and environmentally friendly development [of drone use], and to respect the citizens' legitimate concerns for privacy and data protection". This minimum set of standards for EU member states is now at draft stage.

"They are not necessarily looking at it as commercial versus hobbyist, which is traditionally the way aviation authorities have looked at it up to now," explains Ralph James, IAA director of safety regulation.

“They are looking at it purely on risk and saying above a certain weight will be regulated whether you’re a hobbyist or a commercial [operator].”

A stricter regime will be welcomed by many in both. While tenuous rules have applied to the recreational sphere, Doyle says regulations are urgently needed.

Serious incident

“I would like to see it get stricter. If they don’t actually regulate it, it will impact on me at some stage because [after a serious incident] they will come along and ban them altogether,” he says.

“It needs to happen now, not sitting down and seeing what the EU does because that will take years.”

At the moment there is a five-kilometre exclusion zone around Dublin Airport but observers say this kind of “geo-fencing” technology could be extended. Garland says a project is currently underway to compile a database of “no-fly zones” in Ireland and she sees a day when it will be impossible to import drones into the EU without pre-programming them to obey such restrictions.

Today, YouTube clips of drone flights in various built-up areas of Ireland are widely available, including the Spire in Dublin and the Pigeon House chimneys.

There are also concerns that existing rules in the commercial sector are being flouted. John Hennessy of Aerial Filming Ireland – the company run by multiple Emmy Award-winning filmmaker Steven Flynn – said there were concerns professionals were being undercut by amateurs.

“You have a small number of people in the industry who are trying to comply legally and safely and there are a lot of new people who don’t really know what they are doing.”

Ultimately, how many drones you spot in the sky, and what they get up to, will come down to the harmony that exists between advances in regulation and technological development.

For now there is just too much to prevent RTÉ drones taping Ireland v Wales at the Aviva but it’s not hard to believe this picture is some version of a future truth.

“You have to get the risk to a stage where it’s acceptable,” says Garland. “To get to the point where you are going over the Aviva with a crowd and a match going on . . . there are so many considerations to take into account there are very few operators who will [attempt to] do that.

“It’s within the realms of possibility but it’s very far down the line.”

Doyle holds a similar line. "Once again: when it becomes more reliable. They are good but they are just not 100 per cent and until that happens I don't think {the scenairios will occur]," he says. "As technology moves on it will happen. It's just a quesion of when." Drone companies: How to become a licensed operator The rapidly advancing commercial space for remotely piloted aircraft systems (Rpas) or "drones" is attracting more and more attention, and the Irish Aviation Authority (IAA) is expected to grant its 100th operators' licence by the end of the year.

Their potential use is limited only by entrepreneurial imagination. And evolving regulations. Whether in photography, surveying, TV production or even archaeology, a drone may broaden your company’s horizons.

Anyone wishing to operate in Irish airspace for commercial purposes must complete basic training and then obtain a permission to fly and aerial work permission from the IAA.

Guidance material can be found in its Operations Advisory Memorandum, (OAM 2/2012) on the IAA website.

Anyone wishing to fly a drone commercially can do a two-day course with licensed instructors to obtain an Rpas commercial pilot certificate, which they can then use to fly commercially for an accredited company.

In order to become an operator yourself, you must complete an aerial work permission application for each different operation, setting out your intentions.

There are four classes of commercial operation, from those seeking to work in uncontrolled airspace in uncongested areas (the simplest in terms of securing approval) right up to controlled airspace in congested areas (the most difficult).

A risk assessment and safety management process for applicants examines various issues, including the identification of hazards, severity of risk and mitigation. That process ultimately decides whether or not an aerial work permission will be issued.

The cost of obtaining this through private accredited trainers, like Rpas Training International, is €750 for the two-day commercial pilot certificate course, €150 for the commercial pilot certificate flight test, €500 for the aerial works permission application and, separately, a €148 fee for the IAA.

A commercial operators’ permission application alone through the IAA, and not including the two-day course, will cost €1,096.