Drone danger?

26 April 2016

Interview with

Peter Cowley

Last week an aeroplane at Heathrow was struck by what the pilot thought was a Dronedrone. Or maybe it was a plastic bag as subsequent reports have suggested... But it's probably only a matter of time before it happens for real... So exactly what are the laws around drone flight and how much damage could they do? Our resident technologist Peter Cowley joins Chris with a little example...

Chris - Indeed, we're actually outside so we can have a go at flying this...

Okay so Peter, for the benefit of people at home: what are we watching whizz round the car park?

Peter - We've got a drone here.  It's just a little hobby drone that costs about £50 and weighs about 150 grams. It's going to hit the ground rather hard... oh look at that - that landed just about OK.

So a drone is a small unmanned aircraft that doesn't weigh very much and, obviously, this size is just for something to play with. It could have a camera on it or not so if someone wanted to look at it. They can be very small - as small as just a few grams. In fact there's one out there that's only one cubic centimetre - it costs about £30.

Chris - You didn't distinguish yourself with your flight path there but are they actually relatively easy to fly?

Peter - No. Definitely not! I got this yesterday and spent about half an hour trying to work out how to fly it in my garden and now we're out in a car park where there's more room, I should get it better but there's a bit of wind here and it's not easy to fly at all. Now it might be because I'm old and perhaps if I gave it to one of my children it would work fine.

Chris - Now the question of whether or not they can interfere with flight paths of aeroplanes and things. Can they go high enough to do that kind of thing?

Peter - This one not, because this has got a range of about 60 metres from the controller and then it won't go any further. There is I think it's a global limit of 400 ft (120 or so metres) which you can't fly anywhere in any country, but if you had a bigger drone that costs maybe a £1,000, you'd probably get that up to 1,000 metres or more, so then it would be illegal and in the flight path.

Chris - And could it physically do damage if something of that sort of stature hit an aeroplane, would it damage it?

Peter - This 120 gram one very unlikely.  I can't imagine that would do anything even if you hit one of the props. And you don't have to have a licence in the U.K. until it weighs 20 kilos. So let's imagine a 19 kilo drone hitting a small aircraft - almost certainly. Hitting a large aircraft like a jumbo - probably not actually. The jet engines are actually tested with deep frozen turkeys going through them, i.e. a bird at high altitude and that's fine. It should be OK, I hope, but...

Chris - Apart from hobby purposes, what are people exploring these in terms of industrial or other applications - what are people trying to do with them, the drones?

Peter - A lot of positive things. So it will be great when there's legislation and society will be used to using them.  So things like journalism, movies, aerial surveying, planning, conservation, anti-poaching, etc., archaeology, cargo possibly - I've seen Amazon talking about that. Obviously law enforcement, search and rescue in the hills, surveillance. There's loads of positive things.  Now the negative things, of course, are crime, moving drugs around, spying, potentially bombing and then, depending on one's view about military or not, it could be classed as negative or positive.

Chris - You invest in emerging technologies. Have you got any investments in this sector?

Peter - I do. I have just agreed to invest in a company that will allow multiple drones to fly simultaneously.  So this means it's for surveillance reason initially so that when the drone is running out of battery it can come back in again and another one can go out for coverage.  And they also have a project potentially with landmines, so actually trying to find landmines.

Chris - So people are literally putting their money where their mouth is and it's quite big business?

Peter - It will be very big business but it does need sorting out because there's a lot of negative press should the drones be doing the wrong thing.

Chris - What about the legislation about this?  Where are we - where do we stand in terms of what the law says we can and can't do at the moment?

Peter - Well there's two issues here.  Security as in for crime; privacy as in consumers. And also safety because if one of these things - if that thing hits us on the head it would be quite unpleasant but if it weighed 19 kilos. The rules vary a bit round the world but the rules in the U.K. basically are: you must be in line of site, it mustn't be more than 500 metres from where you are, it must not be higher than 400 ft, and it mustn't be any closer than 50 metres from a building if it's got a camera on board, and that goes up to 150 metres if it's hovering over a crowd, say at a pop concert or whatever.

Chris - Now to finish off Peter - shall we have another go and we'll test your piloting skills or, better still, can I have a go?

Peter - OK. So this one here's the throttle so if you push it forwards...

Chris - I'm holding something that looks a bit like the controller say for an X-box or a computer game.

Peter - Correct.

Chris - So this knob on the left is the throttle...

Peter - Yes. And the right one is turn left and right.

Chris - OK lets go.  OK, I'm going up in the air and I'm just going to go right and left...

Peter - Oh you're doing a lot better than...

Chris - Let's see how high it goes now Peter. I'm going to try and put it onto the...

Peter - Are you going to replace this? This is my £50. It's gone up to about...

Chris - It's almost out of sight.

Peter - 10/15 metres.  I must say you're a complete natural; you must have done this before.

Chris - It's too many computer games Peter, that's what it is.  Now I'm going to try and bring this down without...

Peter - ... down without breaking the legs!

Chris - ... We'll just give it a little bit more umph just to give a really gentle...

Peter - Oops it's bouncing a bit.  Oops battery compartments come open!

Chris - And we have touchdown - there you go.

Peter - That was brilliant! Well done Chris!

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