Drones: For Good or For Evil?

Since the earliest guises were tested during the Second World War and post-War period, drones, both military and peaceful, have developed at speed, but not without controversy.

Military Drones

Suddenly, drones are everywhere. There are more of them in our skies, they are taking centre stage in politics, and they are a regular item in the news and on our screens. Indeed, any fans of Homeland – and its newly crowned Drone Queen – will be particularly familiar with them; or at least their role in warfare.

The earliest guises of the unmanned miniature aerial vehicles (UAVS) were tested during the Second World War and post-War period, and developed to include military reconnaissance drones by the time of the Cold War. The first armed drones were used in the Balkans war, and since then their use has escalated at speed; deployed in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Pakistan. Controlled by pilots from the ground (or autonomously pre-programmed to follow a specific route), drones minimise danger to any flight crew, they remain in the air for up to 82 hours, and are cheaper than full-sized aircraft.

The Expanding Use of Drones

But whilst the use of drones in the modern battlefield is highly publicised – and often highly criticised – they are impacting many more areas of life. Music videos are being made, cinematographers are capturing scenes from the sky, and estate agents are using the vantage point to showcase homes to their full capacity. Farmers are guiding water and pesticides to crops with increased precision, and police forces are chasing criminals with a bird’s eye view – a so called spy-in-the sky. And anything from rescue teams to oil companies are using them in areas out of humans reach; surveying distant pipelines or searching for earthquake victims stranded on a roof. Drone permits in the UK have increased by 80% since the beginning of this year alone.

Music video shot with a drone :

Drone Controversy

But the sector, tipped to be worth more than £100 billion, is not without controversy. With very little legislation yet in place and almost zero legal framework for their operation, there are a number of areas for concern, without even considering their impact on war-torn countries.

First off, we have safety: a large number of drones in the sky, particularly over urban areas, pose the risk of crashes, whether between drones, or with buildings and passenger-carrying aircraft. Similarly, even a small device could cause injury falling from a height, as could the numerous spinning blades a drone is equipped with.

We also have security: there are concerns that drones offer the police too many unlegislated powers of surveillance. And conversely, the police fear that drones will become a potential tool for terrorists to conduct surveillance or carry out attacks. To highlight the point, in October 2014, unidentified drones were seen flying over seven EDF nuclear power plants in France.

Drones are also being used to spark controversy: in October, a UEFA Euro 2016 qualifying football match between Serbia and Albania was cut short after a drone carrying a flag with the insignia of ‘Greater Albania’ was lowered into the stadium, sparking violence between fans.

Drones for Peace

But away from the controversy, there are also visions of drones for peace (and financial gain). Google’s research arm, Google X, is currently running a programme called Project Wing which is working on the creation of delivery drones. Set up two years ago in secret, the project was first conceived as a way to deliver defibrillator kits to people suspected of having heart attacks. Google has said that its long-term goal is to develop drones that could be used for disaster relief by delivering aid, supplies, and equipment to isolated areas or those hit by natural disasters.

And Amazon – although slightly less altruistic in aim – has announced its vision for drone delivery: octocopter drones delivering the 84% of its orders that are under £5 (and therefore drone deliverable) in under 30 minutes. For a society who want things now, it’s a powerful move.

Introducing Amazon Prime Air:

Commercial Drones in the Skies of Australia

And Amazon are not the only company with their sights set on making parcels soaring through the sky as common place as delivery vans and couriers on the road. Australian textbook rental and sales start-up Zookal has partnered with drone company Flirtey to make deliveries, trackable via an app, across Australia. Zookal CEO Ahmed Haider comments: “As one of the few countries in the world to allow commercial drone activities, Australia is uniquely placed to create a new drone industry and shape the development of regulations in this space”. Google’s Project Wing is currently testing in the drone-friendly Australia too.

Zookal hopes to offer the first commercial use of fully automated drones worldwide, with ambitions to bring drone delivery to US customers by 2015. But of course, like everyone else, the company will have to wait on the decisions of the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). A law passed by Congress last year requires the FAA to open US skies to commercial and private drone flight by 2015, but the agency is behind schedule, and it is doubtful it will meet that deadline. Stand-by for more information.

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