The controversial devices, which could be useful for everything from firefighting to journalism to deliveries, are getting a PR makeover.
Imagine a pilotless aircraft – a drone.
Has it just delivered you a pizza – or fired a missile into an al-Qaida hideout in Pakistan?
See: drones have an image problem.
But as western military operations wind down in Afghanistan, American aerospace manufacturers – to which the Pentagon has paid about AUD$2.7bn for military drones in 2013 – are seeking new markets.
They are also conjuring other names, divorced from the violence that consumers have for good reason associated with drones. They’d like you please to forget “drones” and think “unmanned aerial vehicles” or “remotely piloted aircraft”.
Yes, there’s much in a name when the drone market is suddenly hyper-competitive. The democratisation of technology and smartphone applications has spawned a plethora of companies across the world that can sell a drone for the cost of a DVD player.
Hundreds, maybe thousands, of Australian drone hobbyists – who don’t need a licence or any training – are already operating such small, mass-produced, cheap imported drones. Some have GPS and cameras, a range of two or three kilometres, the capacity to fly for 20 minutes at 70km/h and then find their way home.
Such hobby craft can only be flown away from airports, in daylight and below 122 metres (400ft).
It is, however, potential commercial applications of bigger, sophisticated drones that are creating lucrative commercial markets for established aerospace manufacturers and newcomers.
Suddenly, if you believe recent press, the future of drones seems as expansive as the market for consumables. In the digital age of online ordering and fast courier delivery, the drone seems an obvious advance.
Indeed delivery by drone may yet revolutionise the way we order, receive and consume everything from books, food and alcohol to chemists’ prescriptions and pet care items.
An Australian startup, Flirtey, has already hooked up with textbook rental service Zookal, with a plan to deliver books that can be ordered by smartphone app. The app would then be used to trace delivery progress and guide the pilotless aircraft to the consumer.
What could go wrong?
Amazon – the world’s biggest online retailer – also recently foreshadowed plans to dispatch orders of up to 2.3kg by drone. Amazon chief executive Jeff Bezos said the service could yet be five years away, but that it was definitely not “science fiction”.
Flirtey/Zookal reportedly hope to drone-deliver by early next year – pending regulatory approval.
Yes – regulatory approval. Which seems like a good place to pause and consider precise implications of commercial and recreational drone use for air safety, privacy and perhaps national security.
Might we be buzz-sawed on our doorsteps by misguided flying pizzas, or bludgeoned by vodka bottles or the next weighty HBO box set? Could the drone camera at a sporting event be used to deliver a terrorist’s bomb instead? Keep pondering …
Veteran ABC journalist Mark Corcoran contributed extensively to a June 2013 study on drone opportunities and challenges for news gathering for the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism at Oxford University. He now leads a drone research and development study for his employer.
“Amazon’s musings were great publicity, but really they ought at this stage be regarded with a large degree of amusement – it was masterful self-promotion,” Corcoran said.
“At the moment Amazon’s idea might work if you live in a low-density area less than a kilometre from the dispatch warehouse within a clear line of sight – but otherwise there are so many regulatory and other hurdles that the plan would be a long, long way off from being realised.
“Implementation of civilian uses for drones is in the formative stage. The bottom line is that it is about the many sensible applications. My starting question was: can drones be used to help our news gatherers covering conflicts and disasters by minimising their exposure to risk and danger while on assignment? The short answer is yes, drones do have that potential application but there are still many issues of safety and of course privacy to be considered.”
Beyond the delivery of consumer goods there are many potential uses of drones that could transform their image from stealthy killing machines to agents of good. More than 60 commercial drone operators (up from 33 in June) are already registered with Australia’s Civil Aviation Safety Authority (CASA) – mostly for survey work, aerial photography and scientific research.
But they are also being used for bushfire spotting and have obvious potential use for lifesaving and, amid a recent spate of shark attacks in New South Wales and Western Australia, for spotting the great ocean predators.
It’s just a matter of time, surely, until someone proposes using unmanned aerial vehicle technology to cull (or in the old drone parlance “take out”) threatening sharks.
That is why the approval process for commercial drone operators is often long and costly, requiring applicants to complete most of a conventional private pilot’s course.
The potential for drones that hover while delivering goods in urban areas to injure, interfere with domestic aviation or threaten privacy is obvious. Drones are already used in Australia for live sporting coverage. But there have been accidents involving crashes into crowds overseas and the intrusive potential for drones in media (already favoured by paparazzi in Europe) is already demonstrated.
Small drones are already extensively used for pre-planned film work and documentaries in Australia – but for not news gathering because current regulations render the process too cumbersome to respond to fast-breaking events.
Corcoran says this could change dramatically in coming months because CASA plans to effectively deregulate small two kilogram-and-under commercial drone operations and substantially reduce restrictions on slight bigger craft weighing two to seven kilograms. That could be the trigger for drone journalism in Australia to really take off.
Of concern however, is that it could be largely left to media organisations and individual journalists to operate the drones in these categories in a safe and ethical manner.
“If a drone can be used to save a life – for example spotting a drowning swimmer – then people might accept them. But if one gets sucked into the engine of an Airbus A380 on take-off from Mascot airport, drone control may well end up alongside gun control,” Corcoran said.
Senior fellow at the Australian National University’s Strategic and Defence Studies Centre, John Blaxland, agrees drones have a PR problem. But, he says, it may not be entirely justified.
“The very word ‘drone’ conjures graphic images of armed pilotless aircraft raining down death and destruction. But this is a caricature of a technology that … has tended to be viewed bleakly rather than in terms of the many other constructive applications that are emerging as the technology matures. This is a genie that cannot be put back in the bottle, with different variations for a wide range of applications emerging around the globe. The question now is: how do we channel it, constrain it and direct it?” he said.
“There is a legitimate concern that drones armed with precision-guided munitions invite hubris, overreach and the less discriminate – if not indiscriminate – use of force from a safe and sanitised distance. Conversely, however, such drones, if employed with clear and strict guidelines, can allow for far greater discrimination in the selection of targets to a level never before seen.”
A couple of years ago I heard the Israeli drones humming over Gaza City. Then came the gunfire.
And that, not the capricciosa I want delivered, is what I think of when someone says “drone”.