As reports emerge of a drone flying into a Heathrow flightpath, Harry Wallop examines how unmaned vehicles became so popular and what the rules are about flying them.
It is a story straight out of a science fiction movie: in July the pilot of an Airbus A320 coming into land at Heathrow, flying at 700ft, suddenly saw a drone – an unmanned vehicle of unknown mission and destination.
Neither radar nor air traffic control had picked it up. The operator of the drone was almost certainly an amateur gadget fan, whose intentions were entirely innocent – if idiotic. But what is to stop a terrorist trying something similar?
The UK Airprox Board, in charge of air safety, is due to report on the incident later this week. By next year it could find itself much busier. Because this Christmas Day there are likely to be thousands of consumers who find a drone under the tree, and who launch their spoils to the air. Drones are this year’s must-have gadget for the technophile who is already drowning in tablet computers, selfie sticks and wristbands that monitor your sleeping patterns.
“So far this year we’ve sold close to 10,000 drones, and that is before the Christmas rush,” says Oliver Meakin, managing director of Maplin Direct, an electronics website. His firm says sales have quadrupled this year.
Dixons, Amazon and other consumer electronic retailers report a similar surge in sales of drones. They range in price from as low as £30 to as much as £30,000. The basic ones are no more than little remote-controlled helicopters, with very short battery life and unable to fly any higher than 10 feet. Calling them “drones” adds a veneer of militaristic sophistication to an otherwise simple toy. But the pricey ones can fly for about half an hour, be controlled via your smartphone and can travel as high as a mile into the sky.
Mr Meakin says his company usually only calls something a drone if it has a camera attached, which is increasingly the case. This is one of the main reasons why drones have jumped in popularity – they allow the selfie generation to take spectacular pictures of themselves or their homes from the air. Not only is the quality of the on-board cameras pretty good in some drones, but the technology has progressed.
Ian Pearson, the founder of Futurizon, is one of Britain’s leading futorologists, predicting developments in the gadget world. He explains: “These drones have fairly sophisticated gyro-technology that allows them to keep mobile in the air. Previously, you needed quite a bit of skill to fly them. And the cost of that technology has fallen rapidly.”
With the most sophisticated drones you can set them to follow you (or rather your smart phone’s GPS signal), as you ski down a slope or career down a track on a mountain bike – turning your family day out into a slick action movie.
Indeed, the biggest users of expensive drones are news broadcasters. Why spend £1,500 an hour hiring a helicopter film crew, when you can use a far cheaper drone to film, say, a forest fire or flood? Indeed, the Telegraph has used drones to access places previously impossible to capture on film. Surveyors and utility companies are also starting to use them to inspect power lines, or leaking roofs – a safer and quicker alternative than climbing ladders or scaffolding.
But for all the exciting and fun possibilities, there are mounting concerns that thousands of consumers are getting their hands on a bit of powerful kit unaware of the risks and regulations. As the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) makes clear “unmanned aircraft, irrespective of their size, are still classified as aircraft – they are not toys.” Even if you are using them purely for your own use, and not commercially, you cannot fly them in built up areas or above large crowds. Many people, however, appear either ignorant or happy to flout the rules.
Maplin has asked suppliers to put a leaflet in all boxes explaining the rules, but this is a voluntary measure and many online retailers have not adopted this practice.
In October, at the Euro 2016 qualifier in the Serbian capital Belgrade, the match was halted after a drone carrying an Albanian flag was flown over the stadium, sparking a brawl. That same months, a man from Nottingham was arrested after a drone was flown over Manchester City’s Etihad stadium. The CAA has successfully prosecuted two drone operators relating to safety breaches and cautions that ignorance is no defence.
But it is not just trouble makers who are a worry. Mr Pearson believes that anyone buying a drone should hand over proof of identity, as buyers of mobile phones have to.
“I am not a doomsayer, but I think the potential for drones to be used by terrorists is a very serious threat.” He says that a single drone packed with explosives and sent into the flight path of an aeroplane, is probably not as big a worry as sending 100s of tiny wasp-sized drones, carrying infection or nerve gas. “That’s what I would do.”
One hopes that his scenario remains strictly within the bounds of horror movie fiction. But it is clear that the authorities will need to work quickly to catch up with the technology.