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We must act swiftly to protect against the misuse of drones

4 min read

New legislation is needed to make the misuse of drones a criminal offence and to make the registration of their ownership mandatory, writes John Hayes

“Are we at mercy of technology or is technology at mercy of us?” This question, posed by Ali Smith in her novel Winter, is one that defines the times in which we live. The efficacious application of new technology is an issue that governments across the globe must address if the rising tide of change is to transform our lives for good rather than ill.

The use of drones is one of the more visible manifestations of this technological advance, and their use provides a good example of how prudent government action can help ensure that the impact of new technology is benign. For while drones pose widely reported risks to safety, security and privacy, this emerging technology has many potential benefits.

The growing market in drone technology offers the UK opportunities; well-illustrated when the firefighters at Grenfell Tower used drones to inspect the top floors of the building, which had been deemed too unsafe to be inspected by any other means. The West Midlands fire service has been using drones since 2007 for assessing sites and for wide-area searches. Thus drones can be used beneficially and safely to increase effectiveness and efficiency.

Some airlines are using drones to conduct safety inspections of their planes, with the time saved making the operations more efficient and leading to fewer delays for customers.

Using pioneering technology that improves services and delivers economic benefits is a key element of the government’s industrial strategy. To which end, drones have the potential to transform the way in which businesses operate and interact with consumers in many ways. It is clear that they have a range of virtuous applications, but their use must be within a framework that guarantees safety and security.

The misuse of drones poses a significant challenge. While regulations are already in place that prohibit many of these possible misuses, we need a more comprehensive approach if public confidence in their use is to be preserved. Such efforts are complicated since the way drones are employed represents a moving target with which law-makers must keep pace if the regulatory framework is to remain fit for purpose.

It was for these reasons that, while I was Minister of State in the Department for Transport, we commissioned a consultation on the use of drones. It revealed that there are indeed significant gaps in the powers available to effectively police their use. For example, the police currently lack the power to safely ground a drone or to seize and retain a drone’s component parts if there is reasonable suspicion of it having been involved in an offence.

Government must work with industry to ensure that technology itself is deployed to ensure that drones are always used safely. Airspace awareness apps are an excellent way of giving drone users easy access to the data they need to determine if a flight can be safely and legally made. While such apps already exist – for example NATS has developed a Drone Assist app – the consultation demonstrated widespread support for making their use mandatory.

Geo-fencing is a type of software that implements airspace restrictions, using the drone’s own GPS to ensure that it does not enter any no-fly zones. The government is working with the industry to improve how geo-fencing can be made more secure and effective in future. What is already clear is that the effective use of geo-fencing depends on the release of information on the UK’s airspace restrictions in a format that manufacturers and tech developers can easily utilise.

As Benjamin Disraeli observed, “Action may not always bring happiness; but there is no happiness without action.” Public concern about the misuse of drones is growing. Complaints to the police – ranging from allegations of snooping to reports of near mid-air collisions – have increased by 12-fold in just two years. New legislation is needed to make the misuse of drones a criminal offence and to make the registration of their ownership mandatory. It is important that we act swiftly, proportionately and carefully, but without delay. The message is clear; the government must now take it to heart.

John Hayes is Conservative MP for South Holland and The Deepings, and a former Minister of State at both the Department of Transport and the Home Office

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