The recent story that the Metropolitan Police are considering trialling/ will use (depending on the source read) eagles to control miscreant drone use raises some important and interesting questions over civil drone use policy in the UK.
I have to admit when I read the story of eagles being used to capture drones I had to do a quick check on the date to make sure it was not April 1st. But the video released alongside the story clearly shows that an eagle can be trained to catch a small drone and bring it back down to earth without injuring itself, although whether that would be possible to do so safely outside of controlled conditions, with larger machines is questionable.
The fact that the Metropolitan Police are willing to consider such a possibility highlights a very serious message – as things stand it is not possible to adequately prevent drone misuse, and as such anything will be considered.
There continues to be a lot of talk about the need for more drone regulation. But on what basis can more regulation be justified when it appears so difficult to enforce existing regulations?
So we need to ask in reality if there a problem and what is the extent of it if there is, and can new regulations play any meaningful part in alleviating drone related problems? One of the big fears surrounding drone use is they could bring down a manned aircraft if a drone gets sucked into an aircraft engine. The Airprox Board which investigates near misses between aircraft in UK skies, has released reports of 19 near misses between drones and manned aircraft in 2015. In all 19 cases it was not possible to identify the pilot of the drone. One of the near misses occurred on the 22nd September when a Boeing 777 which had taken off from Heathrow Airport and was flying at 2000 feet over the Houses of Parliament had a drone fly within 25 metres of it. The investigation found that avoidance action by the plane had not been possible and the risk of collision between the Boeing and drone was high.
Another major area of concern relates to the surveillance potential that is made possible via drone technology use. Whilst we have applicable data protection and privacy laws, again there is this problematic question of enforcement.
It is important however to recognise that surveillance can be used in both negative and positive ways. It may be visualised that the recent floods in Northern England and Scotland provided an ideal type of situation by which the benefits of drone technology might be clearly seen, by for example enabling the identification of those in peril more quickly, assessing the impact on key infrastructure, and the possibility of flying rapid emergency supplies to those cut off.
Recently published research by a team from the University of Zurich has looked into ways that drones may be used in a cheap and effective way to help in the search and rescue of missing people, as in the forests and mountains of Switzerland around a thousand people annually go missing. The researchers have developed artificial intelligence that enables drones to automatically identify and follow man made trails. Whilst this work may save lives, it is of course a short journey to envisage how such technological developments could be used in a negative, subversive way, both by governments and criminals.
The UK Government who are currently consulting on the civil use of drones in order to develop future policy, are acutely aware of the risk of over burdening the developing civil drone industry with additional regulations. The U.S. and Ireland have both chosen as part of their drone control strategies to go down the registration route, but this by itself cannot directly identify drone misuse. Whilst eagle trainers may hope they can play a part in drone control, technology is going to be the real bird of prey in this respect, and if there are to be new regulations then a possible development may be in the provision of legally binding requirements on drone manufacturers to include control technologies within their products; so for example the inclusion of technology that enables an external identification of the drone to be achievable, and blocking technology preventing the drone from flying in unauthorised airspace as part of the software of the machine.