You better watch out: drone invasion is coming to town

Drones need to be traceable and trackable, and laws enforceable

In Ireland, all drones weighing over 1kg will need to be registered with the Irish Aviation Authority. Photograph:  Robert MacPherson/AFP/Getty Images

In Ireland, all drones weighing over 1kg will need to be registered with the Irish Aviation Authority. Photograph: Robert MacPherson/AFP/Getty Images

 

Drones are predicted (as last year) to be one of the top-selling Christmas gifts this year. Depending on your view of drones – and most people are not neutral on the little buzzing, hovering devices – that will either delight you, or cause your blood pressure to spike.

The massive rush to own them that many forecasted hasn’t happened yet. They remain more of a hobbyist curiosity, but are increasingly popular. Sales this year are expected to total about 700,000 in the US, a 63 per cent increase on 2014, according to the Consumer Electronics Association.

But those new owners, as well as existing drone aficionados, need to be aware of incoming changes to legislation in Ireland (or in the US, proposed regulation) that will pose additional ownership responsibilities.

In Ireland, all drones weighing over 1kg – including those already purchased – will need to be registered with the Irish Aviation Authority (IAA) starting on December 21st. The IAA says details of this process will be posted to its website, iaa.ie, in December.

In the meantime, there’s a handy chart noting the responsibilities of drone ownership in the Remote Piloted Aircraft Systems section (iaa.ie/Remote-Piloted-Aircraft-Systems). There are a lot of don’ts on that chart that might surprise some amateur drone pilots, including the fact that you aren’t supposed to fly them at all over any urban or built-up area – city, town or village.

Over in the US, the Federal Aviation Authority (FAA) has just proposed fresh regulation for the devices that, if approved, will be more restrictive than that in Ireland as far as registering the devices goes, but remains somewhat less restrictive in terms of flying them.

Under the US proposals, drones as small as 250g would have to registered and basic details placed on a federal database, to create traceability between a drone and its owner. The registration number would be issued for the drone owner, not the individual drone. Drones would need to display the registration number of the owner on the drone’s body or, alternatively, the individual serial number of each drone would need to be on file against the owner’s registration number.

Enforcement

The problem with all of this existing and proposed regulation is enforcement.

For example, the FAA – and I’d guess the IAA too – seems most likely to introduce registration as a post-purchase requirement, rather than at point of sale. But how many owners are likely to comply? No doubt, the ones who do will be those who are most likely to adhere to all the operational rules as well.

The issue is the people who don’t comply.

To have any chance of producing a meaningful database, drone registration should happen at point of sale. Otherwise, as with dog licences, people will only randomly do what they’re supposed to do.

And who will head out to check whether airborne drones are being operated within height restrictions and away from places in which they aren’t supposed to operate? Gardaí? Somehow, I think this won’t top their policing agenda.

But let’s say a garda does show up to investigate a drone complaint. Spotting a painted-on registration number on a flying drone would be quite a challenge even with the best set of binoculars.

If only a serial number has to be registered, that’s also a fairly useless way to associate a drone with a person, unless the drone has crashed and is recovered.

Meanwhile, the devices, typically used with an on-board camera, grow ever more popular. And ever more incidents are reported of drones being operated in hazardous, privacy-compromising or irritating ways.

Only a fraction of this behaviour is malicious. Most is likely to be done either in ignorance or through unskilled operation of the drone. But you can see there’s going to be trouble ahead. Drones need to be traceable and trackable, and laws enforceable.

Here’s my holiday prediction: current and proposed regulation will be as ineffectual at dealing with the challenges posed by drones as existing laws aimed at restricting drivers from using their mobiles.

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