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Once considered as a military weapon, drones are now entering every part of the society. From hobbyist to local law enforcement to the kids in your neighborhood it seems as if everybody owns one. Over the past few years, the commercial drone market has seen an exponential growth. They are no longer limited to hobby-flying or filming, drones can now be found delivering packages, ferrying people, carrying out inspection work and even helping in disaster relief. With annual sales crossing the billion dollar mark, it has become an extremely lucrative industry attracting several companies and creating hundreds of jobs. The market has become so big that the FAA estimates that there would be about 7 million small drones occupying the American airspace by 2020. While the drone world is basking in the new found fame and the money that accompanies it, it has also started turning a lot of heads. Specifically from aviation regulatory bodies, law enforcement agencies and militaries across the world.

DJI Phantom, one of the most popular commercial drones.

The underlying reason behind this unwanted attention for these seemingly naive flying machine is pretty well founded. Turns out they are not really harmless, in fact, these machines can be easily modified to inflict heavy casualty and even in their natural form, they pose a credible threat to national security and individual privacy. The FAA alone is registering several hundred complaints every year and the local law enforcement agencies are not far behind, some reporting a 10 fold increase in the number of drone-related complaints received. Rogue drone operators are becoming a worldwide phenomenon invading sensitive airspace, private property, stalking people and sometimes running right into them. In this very short period, they have managed to get past white house security and land on one of its grounds, smuggle drugs into prison, impede efforts to fight wildfires in California and nearly collided with 3 airliners over New York City. The threat these drones pose is so serious that IATA (International Air Transportation Authority) has called them a “real and growing threat” calling for regulations to be put in place before serious accidents occur. In fact on the 16th of April 2016, a drone collided with a British Airway flight (BA727 from Geneva, with 137 souls on board) shortly before it landed at Heathrow.

A Public Service announcement provided by the U.S forest Service.

Now, if what we discussed above does not seem like a cause of concern to you then let me show you some other ways these drones are being used. Click Here to see a modified DJI Phantom 3 dropping bombs in Syria and Click Here to see a commercial drone modified and used by ISIS for destroying Humvees. These so called hobbyist drones have a huge potential to be used as weapons of terror or assassination. From firing assault rifles to being strapped with explosives, sky indeed the limit on how destructive these drones can be. According to the wired magazine, a DHS (department of homeland security) summit (held on 16th January 2015),  gathered the military, the FAA and other law enforcement agencies to discuss these very issues. One of the most shocking things revealed during the summit was the results of an exercise in which an entire armored convoy was decimated by $5000 worth of drones. They also had on display a buffet of low-cost drones converted into flying bombs and videos of modified drones firing assault rifles.

A modified DJI Phantom carrying 3 pounds of mock explosives.
Images of some of the captured ISIS drones, we can clearly see how most of them are made up of or are a modified version of Commercially available drone parts and drones.

While Drone manufacturers like DJI are co-operating with the authorities and installing features like geo-fencing to restrict drones from flying in or near sensitive areas, war zones and airports. Many fear that it is not a credible deterrent against people looking to weaponize their drones and even the geofence can not hold them out for long. Also, there are several other drones available in the market without these added security features. The new FAA regulations for remote pilot applicants and small drones (from 0.55 to 55 pounds) is indeed a big step towards safeguarding or skies, the threat posed by these drones are still very real. Even though I am just as excited as you are about having a drone deliver my pizza or parcel or maybe shoot a wedding. I am equally worried about it shooting at people and blowing them up. Undoubtedly drones are here to stay and they have a lot of good in them as well, from being medical first responders to assisting in firefighting. But there needs to be certain stringent regulations, ranging from background checks to a basic operator test before these drones sold to the general public and certified to take to the skies.

3 Replies to “Commercial Drones – A flying Hazard…”

  1. Like any new technology, when put into the hands of the masses, the 80 -20 rule applies. There will always be people who abuse it or don’t fully understand it or are just outright foolish when using it. This leaves the rest of us having to deal with some irrational laws that ultimately in this case ground anything (drone like) from flying.
    Only last week, Canada introduced a new law with strict regulations for drone flying, along with some hefty fines for those who do not comply. Soon in the not too distant future I would not be surprised to see some form of piloting license, registration and insurance introduced. It is going to be interesting to see what the cost of policing this industry is going to be. Cell phone use while driving is another example of an abuse of technology, ultimately turning the car into a weapon, yet while there are strict laws in place, very very few people get caught even though there are hundreds of accidents and even deaths directly associated to it.
    In the end, the technology is not to blame, it’s always about people and some will always abuse it, an unfortunate reality that impedes the rest of us from using it for all the advantages it brings or simply to enjoy it.
    Drones are the latest and greatest, there will be many more along with similar stories, because in the end it’s always about people and human nature, and that will never change.

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