They were this year’s ‘must have’ gifts for young and old alike. They come in all shapes, sizes and complexities, from ‘nano’ versions that measure no-more than a couple of inches across to enormous, GPS enabled, camera wielding machines.
While a relatively new innovation, remote-controlled drones are now incredibly popular. The electronics retailer, Maplin, sold nearly 20,000 of the gadgets in 2015 alone and while the total number in the UK is unclear, in the United States, ownership is expected to tip 2.5 million this year.
As the technology becomes more mainstream and the cost of owning your own drone continues to drop, concerns over the number of inexperienced, unregulated pilots – and the capability to cause nuisance or accident – increases.
Over the past year, there have been 59 cases of near-misses involving drones and aircraft. In one case, a drone - reported to be the size of a football – was flown within 20 metres of an Airbus A380 passenger jet, 11,000 feet above south-east London. Another incident saw a drone come within six metres of a Boeing 767 at Manchester Airport. The consequences of any collision in each case – not least for the hundreds of passengers on board, and those on the ground – simply do not bear thinking about.
Elsewhere, some have been busying their drones by delivering drugs to prisoners, hovering over cash machines to capture people entering their PIN numbers and getting candid snaps of celebrities in their homes.
As well as being irresponsible and even morally reprehensible the above activities are very much illegal.
Laying down the law
Drone users are subject to a number of restrictions under the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA), the body responsible for safety and regulation of British aviation. At present, drones must not be flown above 400ft (122 metres) or within 150ft (46 metres) of any person or property. Users must also keep their drone 500ft away from crowds or built up areas and must not fly over any such location at any height.
In principle, this puts a 400-500ft no-fly ‘bubble’ around any village, town, city or other complex, such as airports. In practice however, it seems too many are either unaware of - or do not care about - the regulations.
Nonetheless, anyone caught operating a drone in violation of the CAA rules, or flying in a dangerous manner could face an unlimited fine and up to five years in prison. The drone itself would also be seized by the police and the court has powers to prevent anyone convicted of owning or using a drone for a period of time.
The punishments available to the courts are severe and the government is readying a new set of measures to crack down on reckless drone users. This could include tougher sentences, an introduction of mandatory safety tests and registration of all privately owned drones.
In expectation of a new crop of drones taking to the skies over Christmas, the police and aviation authorities issued a statement in December, urging users to read up on the rules and regulations about drones before making their maiden flight.
The CAA’s ‘DroneCode’ is available online alongside the ‘Drone Assist’ app through the App Store and Google Play. This platform, provided by NATS, the UK’s main air traffic control provider, presents users with an interactive map of restricted airspace, hazards in the air and on the ground, security and privacy risks.