New app will allow public to track, identify and report drones

A number of measures are being introduced to tighten regulations and prevent accidents or privacy intrusions

New technology is to be introduced allowing members of the public to track individual drones on mobile phone apps and report potential concerns or violations.

The app is among a suite of new measures designed to tighten regulatory oversight of the small airborne machines that are becoming increasingly popular in Ireland.

With Christmas expected to see yet more take to the skies, the Irish Aviation Authority (IAA) issued an appeal on Wednesday for new owners of machines weighing in excess of 250g, or with a mounted camera, to fulfil their legal obligation by registering them.

Thousands of people have already done so since domestic regulations were first introduced in Ireland in 2015 and superseded by European law in 2020. However, the true extent of drone sales and use is difficult to ascertain.

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While there has been a case of a drone colliding with an aircraft, there has yet to be a major incident.

“The problem is the exponential growth rate,” said Enda Walsh, the IAA’s drone manager. “We have over nearly eight and half thousand registered operators now in Ireland. That’s about a 50 per cent increase since the start of the year so far.

“If you just look at it from a purely statistics point of view, if we don’t get people engaged with the system and training correctly now, the sheer numbers [are] eventually going to lead to a problem.”

The scramble to update regulations and improve awareness around safety is aimed at keeping pace with the technology and its growing popularity.

Those required to register drones via the IAA must display a number similar to a vehicle registration and undergo minimum training.

As of 2024, remote IDs will become a legal requirement. That will allow people to access apps similar to those used for commercial airlines and view the drone owner’s registration number. The owners’ identities will not be available to the public.

This will assist people wishing to make complaints to the IAA or gardaí, with privacy issues remaining the main concern being reported.

“It’s more [commonly people] not understanding who is actually flying that and why are they there,” explained Mr Walsh.

Legislation is being examined to clarify the role of gardaí in terms of interacting with drone users, which should be published next year. Fines are anticipated to target those who intentionally or maliciously break the law.

A Market Surveillance Authority, responsible for ensuring general product safety and due to be set up next year, should eventually be able to track drone sales, giving greater understanding of their proliferation.

The IAA is also working with local authorities and the National Parks and Wildlife Service (NPWS) to identify noise sensitive areas where drone flight can be limited. Pilots could be given real time information on no-fly zones, even if temporary in nature.

Once European regulations are clarified, manufacturers will have to enclose information leaflets in packaging alerting owners to their legal responsibility around registration.

However, much of the messaging still focuses on personal responsibility and engagement, as the industry develops.

“You will become a pilot,” said Jim Gavin, the IAA’s director of operations, of drone users. “We’re going to see drones in the very near future flying around with people. My kids will probably, in their lifetime, get out of the city back to the suburbs in a drone taxi. We are living in [the future] right now.”

Mark Hilliard

Mark Hilliard

Mark Hilliard is a reporter with The Irish Times