Drones have long been recognised as unmanned military weapons that strike missiles or conduct reconnaissance in war zones, often reported in the Middle East or Pakistan.
Remotely piloted aircrafts (RPAs), as drones are formally known, have received a different type of negative press around the world.
In a Mexican border city of Tijuana, an RPA carrying six pounds of illicit methamphetamine was deliberately crashed into a supermarket car park. There was no identified operator. In Washington, a drone was crashed into White House grounds by an allegedly drunken operator. In Paris several were seen hovering around iconic landmarks in the last few weeks, including Charlie Hebdo offices, atomic plants, the US embassy and most recently a military site on Monday.
In Australia, the use of RPAs in civil applications, such as photography, surveying, or for sheer hobby, is gaining momentum and has become a common object frequenting the skies. With this heightened use comes with a threat to the privacy and safety regulations that currently stand.
The current regulations for RPA use, which are stated on the Civil Aviation Safety Authority (CASA) site, include keeping your RPA 30 metres away from people, keeping it under 400 ft in the air, keeping it in sight and not operating it within 5 kilometres of an airport or aerodrome. Infringement of the the rules can cause fines of up to $8500 per offence. Operators for commercial use of RPA’s also requires a license.
Although guidelines set by CASA on civil and commercial drone use aim to maintain safety, there remains a potential for operators to overstep the boundaries, with no authority to actively monitor their every move.
Professor of Law at the University of South Australia Rick Sarre said legal loopholes remain. In his article for Issues magazine Volume 109, he said there should be a “harmonisation” of legislation for RPAs around the country.
Currently, CASA treats RPA’s as an aircraft. “This will need some rethinking, as this is surely not the place for a ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach to regulating all airborne vehicles,” Professor Sarre told The Newsroom.
Regarding privacy, there is no consistent legislation in place to protect victims of intrusive cameras on RPAs. Mr Sarre states that Queensland, Tasmania and the ACT all have outdated legislations regarding privacy, and don’t include cameras, let alone RPAs, as a factor of an invasion of privacy.
Mr Sarre also questions legal issues regarding safety. “The concern for public safety arises out of the possibility of an RPA straying into airspace and colliding with other aircraft, or dropping out of the sky,” he said.
Such cases have already occurred, according to CASA’s Corporate Communication Manager Peter Gibson. “There have been several reported incidents in Australian airspace within 5 km of aerodromes (including approved helicopter landing sites).
“[These include] March 2014 near Newcastle Westpac base, December 2014 near Sunshine Coast airfield, September 2014 near Sydney aerodrome and in July 2014 near Archerfield Aerodrome.”
In June 2014, CASA planned legal action against an operator who dropped his RPA on a triathlete in Geraldton, Western Australia.
According to Ben FitzGerald, Director of Technology and National Security Program at Center for a New American Security, while general safety is an issue, there is potential for RPAs to be used for surveillance in preparation of a terrorist attack.
“The damage a single drone could cause would be limited but the anonymity and novelty of such an attack [and] would make it an attractive option, especially given how inexpensive commercial drones can be,” he told The Newsroom.
“Drones could capture geospatial information about a target, some security measures, peak times for crowds and a variety of other information that would help plan an attack.”
Rather than focusing on the potential harm of RPAs, Dr K C Wong, Associate Professor of Aeronautical Engineering at the University of Sydney, said the focus should be on how they benefit society.
Mr Wong told The Newsroom RPAs are increasingly utilised for emergency situations, such as delivery and monitoring, as well as research purposes. Such unmanned systems have also been able to create 3D models of public and archaeological landmarks for study and documentation.
“It is downright frustrating that the general mass media constantly focuses on the potential harm of these systems. The enormous potential benefits to society that these systems can bring to society are generally ignored.
“Small RPAs have an amazing potential for use in our society. It’s not likely that we will be widespread package delivery in the CBD in the immediate future, but it could eventually become a possibility,” he said. – Jion Legaspi
Top photo from Mk-Creatures’ Flickr photostream.