The first thing you notice when flying a drone is just how eager the damn things seem. The thrust provided by their palm-sized rotors is usually four or five times their total weight and the resulting craft are almost indecently fast, capable of zipping a hundred feet into the air in seconds or skimming half a metre above the ground at speeds exceeding 30mph.
The craft I’m flying in London’s Victoria Park isn’t, of course, the bulb-nosed, fixed-wing aircraft deployed as terrifying “hunter killers” in the Middle East, but the slick successor to the RC model airplane.
The name ‘drone’ itself has been applied to both civilian and military remote controlled aircraft since at least the 1940s, but a new breed of small, easy-to-fly craft is opening up the skies to amateurs and companies alike, bringing with them all the problems and opportunities of any newly-contested territory.
Amazon has spoken of providing home deliveries using them, while charities hope they will be able to provide aid to people in disasters and drought-stricken areas.
I’m flying it with Mark Steyn, a former City worker and director of OnDrone, a UK company that sells custom drones to everyone from hobbyists to private military contractors.
“Before these drones, it was all very mechanically complex,” he says. “You had to build something aerodynamic and learn how to fly it – slowly – and pretty soon you’d crash it and have to rebuild. It took time. Now all the difficult stuff is in the electronics; it’s more accessible and there are new models coming out every day.”
Like most toys these drones are the result of decades of technological refinement, with many of their most critical components –including GPS and processors – benefiting from the billions of pounds of research and development poured into the smartphone industry in recent years.
Our craft is a custom rig costing around £1,000, with features including a GPS-guided auto-return if the pilot loses control. But cheaper models go for as little as a few hundred pounds.
This combination of low price and easy access is causing a boom in the market, but it’s also leading to headaches for regulators as enthusiastic amateurs test the limits of their new-found freedom.
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In the US there have already been a number of notable accidents including a “near miss” between a pair of drones and a New York police helicopter, a drone crash-landing into a geyser in Yellowstone National Park, and an incident in which a crowd of drunken ice hockey fans downed what they thought was a police surveillance drone monitoring their celebrations. Footage of the last incident, uploaded online, shows a throng around the craft (which in fact was a commercial model) chanting “We got the drone! We got the drone!”
In the UK and the US, drone usage is regulated by the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) and Federal Aviation Authority (FAA) respectively. On both sides of the Atlantic there are clear rules about when and where to fly drones but such rules are difficult to enforce for amateur pilots. And while the FAA has essentially banned all commercial operations in the US until a review scheduled for the end of 2015, the UK has welcomed the fledgling industry.
Professional pilots here need only to secure one of two CAA-approved certificates – either the Remote Pilot Qualification from the Resource Group or the Basic National UAS Certificate from EuroUSC - which are essentially drone driving licences, costing around £1,000.
“The vast majority of applications are for aerial photography of one description or another because the technology at the moment only really allows them to be used for that,” Richard Taylor of the CAA tells The Independent.
“The aircraft can be no heavier than 20kg and can’t fly within 50 metres of any person or vehicle or building, and not within 150 metres of sporting events and concerts – though of course people seek permission for specific exemptions.”
Mr Taylor gives the example of Scottish firm Cyberhawk, which uses drones to carry out dangerous inspection work on oil rigs while Mr Steyn mentions a start-up who want to offer a delivery service in London’s docklands but are having trouble getting permission to fly over buildings.
Three police forces and a trio of fire services also have licences to use the craft in the UK, and numerous media outfits – including the BBC and Sky News – have had drone pilots on staff for months.
Despite this rapid proliferation of the technology, the UK has not suffered any major incidents so far. Taylor says that there have only been two prosecutions in the country for dangerous flying, both of which resulted in fines.
In one incident an amateur pilot pleaded guilty after shooting footage too close to the rides at Alton Towers, but the second involved a drone crash too close for comfort to the nuclear submarine shipyard in Barrow-in-Furness.
Despite fears that drones might be a danger to airports, the UK Airprox Board, which investigates close calls between aircraft, reported only a single complaint that’s currently under investigation.
“Although, yes, it’s not unfair to say they’re pretty much flying lawn mowers, people do think they’re far more sinister than they are,” says Mr Steyn. “They’re scared of just anyone being able to get hold of the technology but it’s really quite amazing what people are doing with them.”
He adds that most of the software he uses to control his craft comes from open-source communities; the widespread availability of drone technology might make some people uneasy, but it’s also one of the engines of innovation driving the sector.
How the technology might be used in the next decade is unclear, however. Although there’s been much discussion about the possibility of delivery services, this remains one of the most difficult applications, due to the problems in both regulating the airspace and in finding uses that justify the investment cost.
Instead, it seems, surveying and surveillance of all stripes will be the main application, just with far more widespread adoption than we currently see. If the student protests of 2010 were repeated next year during the general election, would the police be flying a drone to keep an eye on things? Would the students?
As Mr Steyn and I direct his sturdy hexacopter around Victoria Park, with passersby stopping to watch with a now-familiar mixture of suspicion and curiosity, the answer seems to be perhaps both sides would, perhaps neither. As the first spots of rain begin to fall on the controller Steyn quickly summons the craft before it short circuits. It seems there’s still more than just legislative hurdles for drones in the UK.