23 October 2016
Drones can be useful and fun, but some may be turned to sinister uses. Photo: Canadian govt
Drones can be useful and fun, but some may be turned to sinister uses. Photo: Canadian govt

Drones: Why they can be harmful and need to be regulated

As everyone knows, drones are useful but can also be used for sinister purposes.

Be forewarned. We are entering an age where anyone can have one.

As the United States and its allies deal with al-Qaeda and Islamic State, one technology that has been used to hunt and kill is the unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV), popularly referred to as the drone.

Presumably other large countries like Russia and China have their own drone technology, but their use of drones is not as widely reported.

However, at least with American use of drones, the responsibility for acts committed can be traced to a certain party – in this case, the US government.

Now we are nearing a new age in which almost anyone can build a drone, hopefully for friendly applications.

But we can’t always count on human goodwill, as we have seen with past technologies.

Aside from small toy-like drones with limited range, there are now open-source websites like DIYDrones and Ardupilot that help hobbyists with complete plans and parts for building bigger drones, although they are more commercial rather than military-grade hardware.

The avionics (aviation electronics) allows the drone to autonomously fly to its intended destination.

All the “pilot” has to do in this case is control the drone’s takeoff and landing.

Once in the air, these drones can fly at an altitude of several hundred meters, which renders them invisible to the naked eye.

The avionics is now commercially available with the software and ports for attaching a global positioning system sensor, a gyroscope, pitot airspeed tubes and other necessary attachments.

All these are plug-and-play systems.

The flight path is described by the pilot using a personal-computer-based graphic user interface.

Larger remote control aircraft can now be converted into drones.

By simply adjusting the thrust-to-weight ratio of the aircraft with a more powerful engine, a larger fuselage and wingspan and a bigger fuel tank (or, in the case of electric-powered drones, a bigger battery), the range and payload-carrying capacity of these drones can be upgraded.

Drones are useful for recreation, research, professional use (such as by geodetic engineers who need to survey inhospitable terrain) and media coverage.

But we all know the dark side of drones – our headlines are filled with, for example, the targeting of al-Qaeda or IS members by drones from the US and its allies.

The real danger here is that as this technology becomes ubiquitous, those who know what they are doing can insert – instead of cameras – dangerous payloads such as nuclear, biological and chemical agents.

So, while we are going about our normal business from day to day, we are unaware that several hundred meters above us, a drone has been programmed to do something sinister.

There is also the issue of privacy.

We normally assume that within the confines of our own backyard, there is an implicit agreement that we have some privacy.

Having someone target their home with a drone-mounted camera may unsettle some people and may, in fact, be a violation of their privacy.

A code of conduct and some safeguards for acquiring and building these drones, especially the larger ones, is in order.

An industry group calling itself the Association for Unmanned Vehicles Systems International has already written its own version of a code of conduct, premised on the tenets of safety, professionalism and respect.

However the drawback with self-regulation is that there are is no legal penalty if the code is violated.

Still, if adhered to by most, the code can form the basis for self-regulation of the industry, which may then be able to avoid legislated regulation.

Already, certain government agencies, such as the civil aerospace administration of each country, have rules restricting where drones are allowed to fly.

Although small, toy-like drones are in general unregulated, larger drones require a permit, need to file flight plans and avoid no-fly areas, such as civilian and military aircraft routes, landing and takeoff zones.

But that is about it at the moment. Regulations for drones are still evolving.

The drone code of conduct should be implemented along with some minimal but sensible legislation to prevent drones from landing in the hands of those with sinister intent, balanced against the need to make them available for researchers, professionals, media and everyday hobbyists who simply want to have fun with them.

Otherwise, if it remains a free-for-all, governments worldwide may step in with even more legislation to strictly regulate and restrict the availability of this useful new technology.

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Consultant on low-carbon technology and publisher of Asian Spectator technology blog

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