Earlier this year in February a Robinson R22 helicopter collided with a drone resulting in a crash-landing in South Carolina, USA. The occupants of the aircraft fortunately escaped without injuries. This was the first reported aircraft crash involving collision with a drone.
Another collision between a helicopter and a drone was reported in Switzerland in May. Earlier, in September 2017, a Black Hawk helicopter collided with a DJI phantom drone in New York. The investigation report indicated that one of the causes of the accident was due to ‘UAS (i.e., drone) pilot’s incomplete knowledge of the regulations and safe operating procedures’.
Several close encounters between drones and manned aircraft have provoked great anxiety about the safe flight of aircraft especially during landing approach and take-off.
The incidents cited above could easily have occurred in Kenya. Helicopter usage is quite popular, while many drone users are not familiar with the rules governing the use of the airspace; some operators may not even be aware that such rules exist.
Drones are unsafe in other ways. A drone can cause injury, or even death when it strikes someone.The pilot of a remotely piloted aircraft was killed in a fluke accident in 2013 in New York after the model aircraft that he was flying struck him on the head. Impact by large drones can cause considerable damage to property and lead to loss of life.
Safety is the overriding consideration in aviation. Drones pose other safety risks. They are low flying and can get entangled with power lines leading to power outages and danger of fires.
Conversations about operation of drones revolve around three main issues: Safety, Security and Privacy.
All stakeholders need to participate in these conversations. This concerns you if you are interested in drones and would like to operate one, either for recreation or commercially. This concerns you if you are a pilot and regularly use the airspace. If you live on the ground and are concerned about your safety, security and privacy then this concerns you as well!
The second major concern with the proliferation of drones is security. Drones have earned notoriety in recent times due to their wide use in airstrikes by USA in conflict zones. Drones come in all shapes and sizes. The Reaper and Predator drones that have been used to inflict so much havoc in the Middle East are shaped, sized and powered much like conventional aircraft. In contrast, the DJI Phantom that is so beloved by videographers at weddings weights just over 1 kg, and is an electrically powered ‘quadcopter’. Both types of drones can carry munitions and weapons, and can be used to inflict damage by both state and non-state actors.
Drones have been flown over prisons to drop mobile phones and other contraband. They have been used for smuggling, and they can be used to carry out surveillance on a place before a crime.
Privacy concerns mainly revolve around unauthorised surveillance and dissemination of privileged information. People are accustomed to protecting their privacy by the use of fences and other physical barriers. They expect to enjoy privacy when in their private spaces. Common law considers two dimensions of invasion of privacy: Intrusion upon seclusion is concerned with the invasion of private space whereas publication of private facts that are offensive and are of no public concern is concerned with dissemination.
Drones can both intrude in private spaces and they also allow the collection and recording of copious amount of information. Drones have disrupted fences. They allow the invasion of privacy with much greater ease. Physical barriers no longer guarantee privacy. Drone usage throws us all open to the danger of becoming victims of all manner of peeping Toms.
Drones can track people and obtain vast amounts of data about their activities and interactions that could previously only be obtained at a great cost. These can be combined with other sources of data, for example, from persistent tracking by a Smartphone to give a worrying amount of data about somebody’s activities. Drones can be equipped with sophisticated equipment, including cameras with face recognition capability, number plate readers and thermal imaging; this totally strips us of all anonymity. A drone can follow and hover over somebody and cause emotional distress and alarm, introducing a new concept of ‘drone stalking’. Several cases have been reported of aggrieved people shooting at drones.
With all these risks, is the drone technology worth it? Should the uptake of this technology be tolerated at all? Why not just ban them? Indeed the laws governing drones in some countries mirror those that govern guns, cigarettes, alcohol and other vices: they betray a grudging toleration of the ‘vices’ and impose strict sanctions.
And yet drones have the potential to contribute to the economy in a big way when used for legitimate purposes. Adoption of drones can provide jobs, result in technology transfer, contribute to manufacturing, improve security and open up new frontiers of the economy.
Read also: Sleeping through the drone revolution
What is the impact of these legitimate interests, and how can they be incorporated into policy and regulation? That is the conversation for another day.
The writer heads the Department of Flying Studies in the School of Aerospace Sciences of Moi University. Views expressed in this article are his own. firstname.lastname@example.org
This article was published in the Daily Nation: Potential benefits aside, the use of drones should concern us all