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Opinion: Drones may be fun, but they also pose complex legal and safety challenges

Novelty may give way to concerns over annoyance, nuisance, privacy, trespass and safety.

Image: Shutterstock/Jonathan Lingel

WITH DRONES HAVING topped Christmas lists countrywide, 2015 began with a swarm of new devices take to the sky. Drones are a promising new tech sector for Ireland. Not just for use, but also development and manufacture. Google, Facebook, Amazon, Intel and others, are all investing heavily. In China it is the year of the Horse, but in Ireland 2015 may become the year of the drone.

But drones have arrived with a complex set of legal and safety challenges and there is no shortage of examples. TGI Fridays have injured diners with their mistletoe carrying drones. Unidentified drones have been spotted over French nuclear reactors, and one recently came close to colliding with an Airbus A320 as it landed in Heathrow.

To reach their full potential, an effective legal approach will be needed. But regulators are faced with a huge challenge.

Places where we previously took privacy for granted may now be accessible

The Irish Aviation Authority (IAA), responsible for air safety, has already set down operational limits for drones and carefully regulates commercial drone operations. All professional operators must be trained, licensed and insured, and have sufficient knowledge of air law; for instance, flights over urban or residential areas are prohibited in all but the most exceptional circumstances.

However, non-commercial use falls largely outside this framework. Neighbours will be intrigued at first, but soon they may well protest as drones pass effortlessly over their garden walls. The presence of a camera also raises privacy concerns. Places where we previously took our privacy for granted, such as gardens, offices and even bedrooms, will be accessible. Novelty may indeed give way to concerns over annoyance (or nuisance), privacy, trespass and safety.

Government, police, journalists and paparazzi will all be tempted by the enormous surveillance and data powers of drones. Amidst government spying and phone hacking scandals, it is easy to be worried.

This is new technology and gaps exist in the law

Privacy and data protections do exist on EU and national levels. But this is new technology and gaps exist. It is not fully clear how or when the current laws will apply and so the EU has earmarked this as a critical area, calling for further discussion, education and policy action.

The laws of trespass are not much comfort, either. It has not been firmly decided how much airspace a person owns above their land and so it is unclear what rights people will have to keep their properties drone-free.

Things get even more serious when it comes to public safety. A typical “small” drone is the equivalent of a steam-iron being thrown at 30mph and many are far bigger. A 20kg drone that loses control could easily cause serious injury. To worsen things, many new flyers will be technically “hobbyists” and not required to undergo any training or hold insurance. In the UK, the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) are especially concerned and have issued guidance to manufacturers to ensure that the safety message reaches buyers.

Damien Doyle, Owner of Copter Shop Ireland, Irelands largest drone distributor explained: “We try to be responsible and won’t sell to someone we believe could be a danger to themselves or someone else. But a ten year old kid with zero training can go and order a drone from the internet and fly as a hobbyist. That’s a problem. We try to always encourage people to attend a Ground School Training Course before they start flying”.

Education and training are critical and courses such as iFly Technology in Dublin have been created to train future pilots. But while such courses are mandatory for commercial operators, hobbyists are not yet required to attend.

Near-misses with airliners and other serious incidents 

But with drones, any hobbyist can cause a catastrophic accident. Fly a drone near an airfield and there is a very real possibility that it could collide with aircraft. In the US, the Federal Aviation Authority (FAA) recently commented that drones present a much greater danger to air-traffic than previously believed. Within a six-month period, the FAA has reported that there were staggering 25 near-collisions with much larger aircraft.

Fortunately, our well-developed Criminal and Civil Liability laws do apply to accidents involving drones. Because many new operators will have little or no knowledge of regulations it will be necessary to use these laws where accidents occur.

But here, there are more problems. Drone operators are often difficult to identify and punishments tough to enforce. Even with serious incidents, such as near-misses with airliners, pilots are rarely known. Sanctions are even rarer. In the UK, home to a growing drone industry, there have been just two prosecutions for drone flight offences and the punishments have been light. In Ireland, there have been none.

To reap the economic benefits of drones, an effective legal approach must be created. Policy debate, education and guidance will be necessary. The Government and in particular the Department of Transport and IAA, must prepare themselves to proactively deal with these questions – engaging with stakeholders and specialists, to provide clear laws and safeguards that will protect us into the future.

John Wright is a Dublin based Lawyer, drone pilot and co-founder of Flightpath Consulting. Follow him on Twitter @jwright6000.

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