I’m talking to Sky News later today about the future of drones — the domestic variety rather than the military ones. I think there are four areas we really need to consider: safety, security, privacy and pollution.
Put simply, what goes up, must come down. Let’s do some very rough maths. The highest you can legally fly a drone in the UK is 400ft or about 122 metres. A drone like a DJI Phantom 3 weighs around 1.2kg. I don’t have one to measure but I’m guessing it’s cross sectional area when flat is around 0.2sqm — though it would likely tumble as it fell.
I’m going to suggest it’s like to be travelling around 110mph or 50m/s at the point it lands on someone’s head, delivering 14KN of force, assuming their head moves by about 0.1m as the drone comes to rest on it. Or rather in it: that’s plenty to crack your skull. At least I think it is: there’s a reason I never became an engineer.
Drones have all sorts of safety measures built in to stop this happening. Like returning to base when their battery is low. But people tinker and tamper all the time. And go way beyond the technical and legal limits. Drones don’t need to fall to cause damage. They could interfere with a driver’s concentration, or get sucked through the engine of an aircraft. And that’s all before…
…people choose to use them to cause harm. The payload of a drone is more than enough to carry explosives. Explosives are fairly easy to make. And even if you can’t, you might only need a naked flame to cause some serious harm. As our military has shown, drones can be used as weapons and consumer grade drones almost certainly will be re-purposed as such at some point in this country.
Even if they’re not blowing things up, many drones have high-grade cameras built in as standard. More than high enough resolution to capture secrets, though they are noisy enough that it might be hard to do stealthily (see below).
It’s not just state secrets that we will need to be concerned about. We are already the most photographed age in history by many orders of magnitude. Drones allow people to put cameras where maybe we don’t want them: over fences and up to first floor windows. Frankly even in the high street: we all have a right to privacy and drones are a spectacular way to breach that right. I doubt your average user flying a drone over a park is collecting consent forms from everyone.
Though drones are yet another disposable collection of heavy metals and oil-based plastics, my concern here is not primarily about thousands of drones filling up landfill. It’s about noise.
Drones make one hell of an irritating noise. This is good in some ways: it makes it harder to use them to breach security and privacy. But when drones become a fact of every day life it is going to be seriously problematic.
But for now, drones? They drone.