IoB Insiders: Adam Leach, director of research and development at Nominet, explores the proliferation of drones, the challenges this brings and why a drone register might be a sensible response.
While radio-controlled aircrafts were once the preserve of a few committed hobbyists, drones have flown a confident course into the mass market, with enthusiasm bolstered by relative affordability and ease of use, when compared to the aerial vehicles of old.
This growing squadron of drones fuels further interest as the self-serving wheels of consumerism turn, and is supplemented by rapidly rising interest from the business world, with companies looking in assimilate drones into their business models, in areas such as deliveries, security and monitoring assets.
It’s set to be a huge business: global spending on drones should top $12 billion by 2021, by which time the enterprise drone sector is predicted to have outstripped consumer usage in both shipment and revenue, according to The Drones Report from research company BI Intelligence. Big names are investing in drone technology and exploring their application, moving very quickly towards adoption.
Amazon is a notable example, with well-developed plans to establish its own drone delivery service (Amazon Prime Air) and a successful trial under its belt: the delivery of a TV and a bag of popcorn by drone after a 13-minute flight in Cambridge, UK at the end of 2016.
Drones can also be used to reduce the pressure on local services – Devon and Cornwall police force is set to launch the country’s first 24-hour drone unit in the summer.
Public safety concerns
That said, drone momentum is being hindered by a rising tide of concern over public safety. This is both important and justified: an increase in the incidents of drones endangering people rings loud and insistent alarm bells for society and the government.
There have been near-misses with commercial airlines – with potential for losses amounting to hundreds of lives – and a sharp rise in incidents of drones being used to smuggle contraband into British prisons. There have also been privacy violations, with drones being used to film people without their knowledge and/or their consent.
The current regulatory framework is somewhat lacking, and there is no compulsory registration for drones. While there is a set of regulations issued by the Civil Aviation Authority, there is no enforcement of these rules and no limitations on when or where (or how) a drone can be deployed if it weighs less than 20kg and is not being used for commercial purposes.
Considering the predicted influx of drones into the market, the potential for risk is going to multiply without a robust and dynamic regulation system that matches the innovative potential of drones.
It is an issue of which the UK government is aware, with the Department of Transport currently consulting on how best to establish a drone regulatory framework.
At Nominet, we have submitted our thoughts on the topic, presenting the case for what we feel is a dynamic solution to meet the demands of complicated new territory. Drones are akin to miniature aircraft, so a regulatory system inspired by air traffic control and reliant on interconnectivity offers the most comprehensive and reliable solution.
The need for a drone registry
In our vision of a drone registry, drone owners will register their aircraft upon purchase and connect to a networked registry service that will approve their drone for use based on its location, the time of the flight and other factors such as weather, hazards and events.
Approval for flight will be based on who you are, where you are and what you are doing. If conditions are not favourable, the drone will be unable to leave the ground, removing the risk of accidents or incidents and taking responsibility away from the user, who may not be in possession of all the facts (such as weather conditions or other aircraft in the vicinity).
To facilitate drone regulation in real time, at the point of use, drones would need to be connected to the internet, bringing them into Internet of Things (IoT).
There is a risk that this interconnectedness may create unnecessary points of vulnerability and raises cyber security issues in the use of drones, but it is vital to create a fully dynamic and live registry to ensure safety and real-time monitoring, which would ultimately be more comprehensive and effective than a static system.
It also supports law enforcement and safety efforts, proactively monitoring drone use via a system that can react to changing weather conditions, or unplanned events, and therefore reduce the risk of damage to people or property. This will also pave the way for wider and more effective adoption of drones for both commercial and personal use.
Dynamic solutions are essential in the vibrant technological landscape of our time. By approaching registry services in this way – for drones and beyond – we can ensure that regulation never stifles innovation, supporting uptake and helping all society reap the benefits of emerging tech solutions with the capacity to transform lives.