The endless, cloud-free azure sky provides the perfect backdrop for our lilting white angel, her four propellers whirring contentedly, sunlight glinting from her blades as she cuts through the heavy midday Australian heat. She dips behind a fence with commendable precision, hovering to land her precious cargo. The happy recipient, languishing in the bubbling waters of his Jacuzzi, lifts his sunglasses an inch, grins and takes a big bite of his prize, giving a big thumbs-up to the camera.
Every bachelor’s dream, surely, to have a mate fly their drone into your garden and land a hotdog in your lap as you chill in the tub?
Except maybe not. According to Civil Aviation Safety Authority regulations in Australia, the footage — which was posted to YouTube just over three weeks ago – contravened several regulations for flying drones, quads, UAVs (unmanned aerial vehicles) or RPAs (remotely piloted aircrafts) and the pilot faces a fine of up to £7,000.
Also three weeks ago but much closer to home, a near-miss collision between a black, 50-centimetre drone flying over the Shard in central London and an Airbus 320 passenger aeroplane on its approach into Heathrow was merely the latest in a string of reported incidents provoking BALPA (The British Airline Pilot Association) to demand tougher legislation on drones. Last month the European Parliament agreed, and issued a press release announcing plans to begin updating the CAA rules which will come to fruition between March and May of next year.
So what will this all mean for the consumer-tech industry? Are drones still a viable Christmas present option for the gadget-hungry chap who has it all (‘specially if you’re buying)?
Just so we’re clear, the owner of DJI, the best-known consumer drone company based in China, claims he’s worth $10 billion. It’s huge business, and it’s growing.
The UK Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) legislation currently in place is simple. You cannot fly at a height of over 400 feet, and if the drone is fitted with a camera, you can’t fly within 50 metres of a person, over residential or congested areas like gatherings, festivals or car parks, and the drone cannot be flown more than a kilometre from the pilot.
Our friend in the hot-tub, known only as ‘Tim’, either didn’t know the ‘Dronecode’ Down Under — footage clearly shows the drone flying over parked cars, a supermarket and houses — or didn’t think it mattered. And he’s not the only one.
Tom Wiggins, 32, Deputy Editor at Stuff Magazine, has written several pieces about the commercial use of drones.
“People don’t know what the rules are, necessarily. There’s nothing to stop people just buying one, taking it out and having a go with it. But they don’t necessarily need to be enforced, particularly. Only the more expensive drones can fly that far anyway, and then they’ll be out of sight, which doesn’t just make them hard to fly, it’s against the law. More crucially than that though, makers can now use mapping data to prevent their products from flying near restricted areas. The drone itself will know there’s an airport nearby and literally refuse to fly too near it.”
Asked if he thinks new legislation will stop the problems at Heathrow, he disagrees.
“My answer to that is that I could go and hang out at an airport without a drone, and cause some issues. There’s lots of good uses for them, so let’s not register everyone for everything. Surely airports should be policing their own boundaries anyway?”
Pressed for an example of something else in the consumer-tech sphere that could cause this kind of upset, he’s quick to answer.
“I suppose the one I always come back to is cars. You can do terrible things with cars, but nobody is saying that the car is inherently bad. It’s just another side of technology that people are going to find not-so-legal uses for.”
To have a car you need a licence though. We muse, however, you could do some serious damage with a Frisbee too if you wanted.
Drones, then. The height of consumer tech, professional tool or potential weapon of mass destruction? And (cheap gag incoming) is it still OK to have, ahem, quad goals?
Shane Felton, 49, a hobbyist quad pilot who set up the flying club FPV South Yorkshire almost ten weeks ago to combat the potential new legislation thinks so. The group, which has grown to 27 members in that short amount of time, race homemade mini-quads: self-made flying machines which measure only 21 centimetres in diameter and cost around £200 all-in. This is small fry when you consider that the RRP of the newest DJI Phantom 4 Pro would barely give you enough change from £1,600 to buy two pints.
He explains that they hire a space the size of a football pitch, set up courses (often through hoops or ‘free-styling’ to display piloting skills) and race. It is hard to imagine these tiny airborne wonders anywhere near a passenger aircraft, particularly as their flying time is only four minutes.
Understandably, Shane is against new regulations. His colleague is going to Brussels next year, to confirm the club’s exemption from such ruling with the CAA.
“There’s been a massive outcry in the hobby, because especially for people who fly like we do, we don’t need geofencing or satellites or to go certain places or whatever. Certainly, there isn’t the power to get up there. They (the CAA) now accept it doesn’t reflect our community. I think it could basically kill the industry.”
When asked how secure he feels that the decision will swing in their favour, he is sombre.
“At the moment they’re saying, ‘Don’t worry, if you’re a member of a club, the rules won’t apply to you.’ That was the statement made in Brussels, but it felt like a throwaway line at the time. It doesn’t say that anywhere in any of the documentation, and I actually sat and read through it all.
“What they’re trying to do, which I completely understand, is to stop someone going to their local Halford’s, spending £1,000 on a DJI Phantom because they’ve got a bit of money and being silly. I completely understand that. But they could apply it blanket to anything with four propellers, like us, and we’re not the same thing. They should license the purchaser, not the act of flying them.”
One man who has broken many drone flight rules, perhaps most controversially his dizzying Shard flight last year, is media manager Nathaniel Durman. Footage from that particular flight, over the building and backed by a sun-drenched London skyline, is nothing short of glorious.
“I can’t do anything professionally without a licence, which is kind of ironic” he says.
He and his brother Jack, who helped him with the flight, maintain that they acted in a very controlled manner, checking there weren’t going to be planes overhead.
News of this endeavour didn’t escape the media. What happened after that Shard flight?
“We got an email from the CAA basically saying it’s not illegal, but you shouldn’t do it. That’s all we got. Then a couple of weeks later I flew the drone through Tower Bridge. Didn’t hear anything about that.”
So, what of the regulations he breached?
“I think those are really sort of advisory, aren’t they? That sort of mixed in with a bit of common sense is the best way to approach it.”
Durman flew his drone over the Acropolis in Athens, too.
“Because it’s a historical landmark I think they got a bit tetchy about it, and they got the armed police out. But it’s all just really good fun. If there’s a commercial gain then great, but the original idea is just to have a bit of fun.”
Nathaniel, like Shane and Tom, is adamant that drones are not the issue, pilots are.
“I think the problem is that a handful of bad apples have got hold of a drone, done silly things with it and spoiled the fun.
“A lot of young kids want to get involved in film-making, and drones are a great way to do that; it’s an extraordinary view of a subject. I think it’d be a shame to have that sense of authority over it. As soon as you slap an authoritarian presence over it, it kills a lot of the fun.”
It’s hard not to see his point, and he is passionate about it.
“I hope this will encourage people to see a positive aspect of drones. I’m sure if people saw our stuff they’d see it’s irrelevant that we didn’t have clearance or wardens standing around us. Of all the stuff I’ve read, I always think, ‘But a drone couldn’t get near an aircraft without being blown away by the engine!’”
A First Officer and pilot for 10 years (who asks not to be named) at one of the most prestigious passenger airlines in the world feels somewhat differently.
“One shut Heathrow for two hours about a month ago. That probably cost about £5 billion pounds.”
Expensive, then… Could a drone could bring down a plane?
“Yes, a bullet will bring a plane down if it hits the right bit. A bird weighs maybe eight ounces, a drone perhaps double that, but it’s much harder material. The blades on the front of our propellers are titanium. The blades behind that are too, but they’re heated to one degree below the melting point of titanium. Hit that, and it bends and shreds the whole thing.”
He pooh-poohs tightening of regulations.
“The regulations are really strict, but most people don’t know what they are. Drone pilots have to pass the same exams pilots do, but they just refuse to do it. Now, I’ve got no problem if they do or don’t, just don’t fly into my path!”
Mentioning that geofencing technology is ‘irrelevant’ because it can simply be switched off, he continues: “You can’t fly drones in Class A Airspace. If a drone goes into that they can be tried as a criminal for infringing airspace and endangering an aircraft.”
On the Shard-scaling incidents, he is emphatic.
“These guys have no idea how dangerous that is. From the ground, from that angle, you’d have no clue. Planes directed to Heathrow clear the Shard by a couple of hundred feet, but that’s straight down the middle for the amateur. Central London is one of the busiest air spaces in the world. You have air corridors at lower levels than 10,000 feet into London City. You throw some random bug into that? No way.”
Landing into Heathrow must be difficult, then?
“The standard airport approach is three degrees. But at two or four degrees, you’ve crashed. The minimal increments of a degree make all the difference. Now, the approach into Heathrow is five and a half degrees. Most aircraft can’t land at Heathrow because of this.”
Asked what should be done, surprisingly his opinion reflects the enthusiast rather than the authority. He is, after all, a pilot.
“Look, it’s the individual, not the culture. You won’t get a single pilot saying, ‘Drones are the problem.’ The people flying them are. You get idiots behind the wheel of a car.”
He mentions military-grade laser pens, which are being misused on the ground by people shining them into cockpits, momentarily blinding pilots coming into land. These, apparently, are more of a problem than drones. Just another example of technology put to bad use.
All interviews finished, TV is of course an obvious answer for relaxation. On Planet Earth 2, a drone the size of a big chair has not only survived a torrential downpour in the Brazilian jungle, but found and filmed five of an elusive species, the Araguaia river dolphin. Due to the murky waters, the dolphins were practically impossible to spot from the crew’s boat, or when somewhat invasive underwater cameras were dropped into the brown river.
This, apparently, is the first time these dolphins have ever been filmed, and it’s all thanks to a fantastical little unmanned aircraft.
Perhaps, finally, some good press for the drone.
— Becky Scarrott