While the phenomenon of drones definitely requires that certain regulations are introduced, is it right to meanwhile ban them entirely for the greater good?

Back in 2015 Moscow Duma raised a question of imposing a ban on amateur UAVs, or drones, seeing then as a threat to the society. The legislators argue on drones being a threat to security and privacy, whereas the community, especially people who recently discovered the joy and amusement of various flying, rolling, and jumping toys, do not imagine how this wild idea could possibly solidify in the Moscow Duma deputies’ heads.

The government folks, as it seems, try to use the usual ‘ban first, talk later’ approach, with the spokeswoman Irina Sviatenko claiming she’s appalled by the fact that children play with drones’ and that amateur drones ‘might pose danger to civil aircrafts on low altitudes’. Whether or not these accusations are fair, UAV (unmanned aerial vehicle, or drone) regulations are still to be conceptualized and developed – a concern which was numerous times raised in many countries besides Russia. With that in mind, the UAV industry may be considered not only a temporary IT/geek fashion; it is bound to, first of all, transform traditional approaches in various industries, driving down costs and increasing efficiency, in a similar way it is forecasted to happen with augmented reality and machine learning.

Amazon’s widely discussed plans of introducing drone delivery were excitedly discussed by everyone and seemed a feasible thing, yet the project has never reached the full-fledged implementation phase, and, curiously, for the same reason: regulation of flights.

What if all drones were out of bounds the very next day? Let’s see what exciting opportunities would then be taken away from us:

  • Beautiful and unique panoramic scenery footage: drones are usually equipped with a camera, whether a mediocre on-board fixed-angle lens, or a GoPro, or even a DSLR camera, granting a pilot an opportunity to produce footage of unique views (like this Chernobyl photo report), or take pictures of rare species of animals and birds without distracting or annoying them and  maintaining the operator’s safety as well.
  • Agriculture: drones, like the eBee project developed by a commercial drone industry leader and our venerable customer Parrot and a French research lab can be used as a means of supervising the crops. They help to adjust the process of growing a harvest based on the aerial data obtained by a drone, thanks to intelligent software and a handful of innovative sensors.
  • City infrastructure: drones operated by professionals may contribute to better situational analysis, whether it concerns traffic jams, mass gatherings, fires, or outdoor events. Potentially, using next-gen wireless connectivity and big data analysis platforms, a city can use this solution to optimize the city infrastructure.
  • Potentially, means of signal transmission: many drones can themselves be a hotspot, so I think it is quite plausible to develop applications which would use drones as means of network extension.
  • Finally, enjoyment: just check out how entertaining a drone can be for both little and big boys and girls – frankly, only a stone-hearted person would be ‘appalled’ by that, I think.

So, the variety of use cases which immediately spring to mind is astonishing. With that said, what makes anti-drone legislators fear the emergence of drones?

One of the major concerns of ‘anti-droners’ is, predictably, security and privacy. Those opposing the drone proliferation become very concerned about drone’s ability to hover stably in the air and record HD videos, thus serving a means of spying on people or gathering incriminating data on, say, a C-level executive relaxing in his/her condo with… well, I’d better stop here not to give food for thought.

The second problem the government folks see about drones is their very ability to fly on low altitudes which are, essentially, a no man’s land for aviation. As soon as drones are deployed by commercial companies (and here I don’t say ‘if’ on purpose), this will have to change. Currently this is the primary reason why Amazon is still lingering with its wonderful drone delivery idea: US Federal Aviation Association needs to elaborate the requirements to drone flights. For instance, among other things, right now FAA requires a drone to be operated by a professional pilot, which undermines the whole idea.
Ms. Sviatenko of State Duma pointed out that no one can control drone flights in Moscow, and that’s why, in her opinion, it makes drones a critical problem: no one would be there to watch for serious unsolicited airborne spyware gathering information or carrying a dangerous object – for example, a bomb (a couple of years ago an incident with German Chancellor Angela Merkel sparked a fierce discussion on drone regulation and whether a drone could be used to, say, perform an attack on a person). Also, the lawmakers claim that amateur drones can be a potential hazard to airplanes, as ‘drones can climb as high as 2 km’, she said.

Whereas this standpoint contained a bit of sense, the only reaction it managed to provoke from the Muscovites, was a collective ‘boo’. What danger could a 5,000 RUB-worth toy pose to aircraft security, really?

Amateur drones have a number of technical limitations which makes them pretty bad spies:

  • In the majority of cases, their range of flight is essentially limited by the Wi-Fi signal reach – now I encourage you to quantify how far you are able to go from your home hotspot, maintaining a Wi-Fi connection. From that perspective, using a drone to spy through someone’s window presupposes that the pilot should be somewhere around, in plain sight. I would refer to Kaspersky’s blog here: “The connection with a drone (which is also used to transmit ‘live’ video) is established via bands in the unlicensed spectrum (433 MHz, 2.4 GHz, and 5 GHz — yep, good old Wi-Fi). Considering a series of limitations imposed on transceivers capacity, we get a reach of max 1 km (usually specified by a producer as 500 to 700 meters). In urban areas, this distance might be divided into two, or even three, to reflect the real-life capabilities (unless the drone is operated by a hardcore geek who likes to tamper with out-of-box specifications). Should you like to navigate a drone on a beacon-by-beacon basis, there will be a need to install additional transponders.”
  • The lens of the camera on your toy drone would not enable you to spy from a distance, and when you fly too close to your target’s face, it obviously does not look like spying anymore. You can do better with a good telescopic lens.
  • The battery life of a conventional drone is limited mostly to 15-25 minutes. It’s quite fine to perform a short flight in the park before returning to good ol’ football game, yet too bad for a hovering means of surveillance.

I would say, with all controversies taken into consideration, banning things for good ‘just in case something happens’ is not a great practice in the 21st century. Our everyday life is undergoing a great deal of fundamental changes, and we are to board onto an exciting journey to using things that were unheard of just a decade ago. For sure, proper regulation should be in place to tame the disruptive nature of the new tech.

With regards to drones, this, in my view, would mean a certain classification and certification of UAVs, like imposing a class system, dividing the drones into ‘amateur/military/commercial’, or ‘light/medium/heavy’, or ‘short/medium/long-range radio’ drones. Drones as well might require a certification and/or government-issued permit if they can carry cargo, are equipped with a powerful HD camera, or are enabled with an autopilot function – in other words, if they are equipped with all features needed for a commercial vehicle.

parrot drone
While it seems as a ton of thinking to do, I would vouch for drones staying with us. As I always said in my nerdy discussions, quite likely, innocent fun toys might be a test lab for doing something grand, a means of trying out new ways and a way to develop and patent cutting-edge tech needed for quite serious industries as defense and logistics. And, of course, I hope that Moscow City Duma would not next think of banning telescopic lenses on their crusade to saving us from spies and cuprits.

By Valeria Titova

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