Key takeaways

  • Drone safety and privacy concerns are pushing regulators to act.
  • Current trend fits with predicted adoption levels for emerging technology.
  • Manufacturers are keeping pace when it comes to addressing risks.

The adoption of new technology is often accompanied by a knee-jerk reaction driven by fear. Think about cars. Under nascent British automobile legislation of the 19th century, vehicles were restricted to just over 6km/h and in some cases required a man with a red flag to walk in front.

I’ve written on Digital Pulse previously about the benefits drones can offer for businesses and society. On the flip side, in recent months the technology has been challenged by (often inaccurate) media stories.

As an example, The Washington Post reported that “Pilots have reported a surge in close calls with drones: nearly 700 incidents so far this year [as of August 2015], according to Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) statistics, about triple the number recorded for all of 2014.”

This was later refuted by leading US drone organisation the Academy of Model Aeronautics (AMA), which claimed: “Only a fraction of the records were legitimately reported ‘close calls’ and ‘near misses.’ Some didn’t involve drones at all.” AMA’s analysis of the FAA’s data showed that the actual number of drone near misses was 27 out of 764 reports, around 3.5% of the FAA’s figures. Some of these 27 involved government-authorised military drones, not commercial or hobby drones.

Drone technology and privacy

When it comes to public concerns, near misses in fact come secondary to privacy. The concept of drones being used for spying has stuck in the public consciousness, as in the well-publicised example of a Texas man who shot down a neighbour’s drone believing it was spying on his daughter (though there was later a dispute over whether the drone was in fact above the property and representing a privacy issue).

The fallacy lies in the fact that small drones are in fact a very poor technology for serious spying. The cameras are wholly inadequate, drones are extremely noisy and are still relatively complicated to operate.

A number of the recent drone regulations are being driven by privacy concerns, even if these are already prosecutable under existing laws. Luckily, common sense has prevailed in most countries, as the rejection of Californian bill SB-142 showed – this bill would have made it a legal requirement to obtain permission from every landowner your drone flies over or photographs; an unnecessarily restrictive requirement for drone operation. However, America is still plagued with conflicts between state-level legislation versus the lack of real regulation from the FAA.

Accepting new technology

So what does this all mean?

When your technology becomes the subject of parody, you know you have a social awareness issue.

Yet, this is in line with expectations, if you believe the Gartner Hype Cycle of technology adoption. Recently, there has been an over expectation about what drones can actually do. While the industry works – and sometimes struggles – to deliver on the promises and expectations, the public and the media are beginning to perceive the risks this technology creates, and the journey to the ‘trough of disillusionment’ has begun.

The Gartner Hype Cycle: is drone technology headed for the slope of enlightenment?

So should you write off drone technology?

In short, no.

Privacy

While the image of drones spying on the public 24 hours a day might make for good press, behind the scenes the law makers, regulators, operators and manufacturers are beginning to realise that most laws and regulations already cover privacy very well. A ‘reasonable expectation of privacy’ is well defined in most countries, and whether it’s a drone or mobile phone being used to ‘invade’ someone’s privacy, the individual can still pursue prosecution under existing laws.

Safety

Drones are still one of the safest and cheapest aerial technologies to date, the reason many companies are still willing to adopt the technology in spite of public fears.

The manufacturers and regulators are not standing still. Chinese tech company DJI – which produced the model of drone that crashed in the White House grounds early in 2015 – is already implementing geofencing in its products, using GPS to stop craft from entering certain geographic areas.  Some companies are starting work on ADS-B integration, allowing drones to integrate into national airspace databases, updating their position in real time to other aircraft in the vicinity.

The FAA, European Aviation Space Agency, Civil Aviation Authority and other worldwide organisations are all introducing rules to reduce operational risk for drone operations. They’re also working on certification schemes for operators, based on risk and airspace awareness.

Look to the ‘slope of enlightenment’

Many of the manufacturers are working on second and third generation models and have learned much about the performance, reliability and safety of their designs in the last few years. Just as importantly, many are beginning to realise that workflow is all important, both at an enterprise or hobby level.

The enabler for this has been software, such as DJI’s GO app, which simplified the operation of drones to the mobile app level and includes a range of safety-related features that prevent the operator from posing a risk to themselves or to other aircraft. Other developers are integrating freely available databases to allow operators to make educated decisions about the risks involved in their flights.

Regulators (such as EASA) are proposing new rules based around risk, allowing low risk applications to proceed, while subjecting higher risk activities (such as package delivery) to more scrutiny. Many have become conscious about the commercial opportunities the technology represents and are gearing their future regulations to meet the needs of these industries.

As always, the devil is in the detail, and the drone industry is not unique in suffering the effects of the Gartner curve. But the trough of disillusionment is not to be feared. It removes a lot of the science fiction dreamers and brings pragmatism to the fore. The fittest will survive. While innovation is far from over, we can look forward to more mature drone solutions rivaling other technologies, such as the automobile, that now enjoy levels of performance, safety and reliability that allow us to take them for granted.


Euan Ramsay is a former Cyber Security Manager at PwC Switzerland.

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Euan Ramsay