The police arrested a Brit after they put a six-bladed copter with an attached paintball gun up for sale on eBay.
You’d be forgiven for congratulating their initiative, but Nick Aldworth, chief inspector within the Metropolitan Police's Specialist Operations business - and the person in charge of the Met’s drone strategy - warns: “When you imagine it at a ceremonial event in central London, it creates a whole new risk.”
The public feeling toward drones is split. The US military offensive to maim and kill targets autonomously in Pakistan caused international uproar. It’s reported that almost 4,000 were killed by US drones in Pakistan alone, with almost a quarter of those suspected to be innocent civilians. The UK’s stock of military drones are another uncomfortable truth for our government too.
Yet drones have also played a huge part in humanitarian efforts.
Recently, popular DJI drones’ cameras were used to map an earthquake-struck village in Nepal, so construction workers could get a bird’s eye view of the damage. After printing the plot on large-scale waterproof posters, the community to plan their reconstruction quickly and cost efficiently.
Consumer drones have been imagined in emergency services too, perhaps delivering a defibrillator or emergency medication in hard-to-access places.
It's fair to say that hobbyist-style drones fill the state with fear. When an eco-activist dropped radioactive chemicals on the Japanese prime minister’s roof it sent shivers up international state security lead’s spines.
Personal drones: do I need to register my drone?
It’s estimated that one million similar drones will be sold this Christmas in the US alone, but they will all have to be registered to their owners like cars - or dogs.
Currently, UK and Irish drones don’t need registration, but it’s “almost certain” the rule will be brought in after a public consultation in spring next year, according to chief inspector Aldworth.
“The way forward will almost certainly be registration and not greater, but clearer regulation,” he says.
Current rules are borne of traditional aviation do’s and dont’s. This means flying near airfields or secure areas - like government buildings or public areas like Leicester Square is out of the question - understandably.
While regulation is playing catch-up, enforcement is strict. Those charged for drone related offences have faced some of the highest fines of their kind, Aldworth says. Offenders coughed up £18,000 each, he says.
UK police spent the past 18 months working out how to protect civilians from drones but Aldworth accepts that the technology will play an important role in how the force protects society too.
“If you consider the department I work in will see £5 billion worth of cuts over time, I can definitely see some elements of policing will be taken over by drones.”
How to catch a drone
As it stands, official policing and monitoring of drones hasn’t advanced further than estimating a drone’s height and brand, and then dashing down the road to find the culprit.
But registration could change this, Aldworth says.
Drone safety systems is a lucrative business. Hailo co-founder, Jay Bregman left his taxi app to found new venture Verifly, which works with pilots, manufacturers, insurers and regulators to develop drone monitoring tech.
Bregman, who has raised over £2 million for his startup, believes geo-fencing could be the answer to the international drone problem.
Once manufacturers are one board, geo-fencing could stop curious pilots steering UAVs into no fly zones.
Aside from pranksters flying drones around London supermarkets (and uploading the footage to YouTube), there’s yet to be any significant drone-related accidents in the UK.
However, “someone will always exploit technology,” Aldworth warns.
For now, it’s likely that drone regulation will simply replicate aviation rules. But in the near future?
“We’re limited by our imagination.”
Find your next job with techworld jobs