Drones – are we opening our skies to nuisance and chaos?

A key area of debate is conspicuous by its absence at a recent policy conference on drones. Drone deliveries may make life in our cities unbearable.

By Chris Middleton

Drones and unmanned aerial vehicles or systems (UAVs/UASs) have the potential to enhance our lives in myriad, radical ways. For example, by transforming deliveries and connecting remote rural communities, modernizing personal transport, speeding up civic infrastructure maintenance, and enhancing search and rescue capabilities. And that’s not to mention the technology’s enormous potential in photography and aerial sensing in sectors as diverse as media and agriculture.

Why put up expensive, intrusive scaffolding for weeks on end to inspect damage to a building if you can just send up a drone for 30 minutes? It’s a persuasive argument from every perspective, including the cost and time savings. As is the ability to get medicines and essential supplies to their destinations quickly, monitor the upkeep of rail networks, offshore windfarms, and oil rigs, or safely patrol disaster zones.

But without effective oversight of this exciting technology, we are “potentially opening the doors to chaos”. So said Councillor Peter Lamb, chairing a Westminster eForum on drone policy this week. As leader of the UK’s Crawley Borough Council, Lamb had first-hand experience of that chaos at Christmas in 2018 when London’s second airport, Gatwick – which is on the authority’s doorstep – was brought to a standstill by reports of a large drone in its airspace.

On that occasion, no drone or perpetrator was found, leading some to question whether such a device was ever present – though the local Chief Constable is adamant that it was. Handily, though, the incident served a useful purpose: it galvanized the formal establishment of counter-drone policing in the UK via the National Police Chiefs Council (NPCC) Counter Drones unit and the government’s 2019 counter unmanned aircraft strategy. Meanwhile the Air Traffic Management and Unmanned Aircraft Act received royal assent this year.

Drone policing had previously been an inconsistent and uncoordinated area. But that is hardly surprising when – as the Gatwick incident proved – it may be far from clear if an incident falls into the category of organized crime, terrorism, activism, prank, PR campaign, stupidity, or simple mistake. Yet whatever the cause, the outcomes may be the same.

Chief Inspector Simon Bachelor is Legislation and Policy Lead for counter drones at the NPCC. He told the conference:

Following Gatwick it was clear that we needed to understand what the scale of the problem was, to get our reporting in order and understand what the demand actually looked like, as well as understand the threat and risk. The focus had initially been around countering the threat of terrorism or organized crime, so perhaps that needed to change.

Today, UAS or drone use is increasing all the time, particularly in the commercial sector. So, deciding and identifying the criminal, careless, or inconsiderate users is going to become increasingly difficult.

Defining the problem space comes down to threat and risk. It’s about understanding the technology, as much as anything else. And as drones become cheaper, smaller, and more capable, it’s an evolving problem.

As of today June 2021, new police powers come into force in the UK, including the ability to force a pilot to land an unmanned aircraft, plus enhanced stop and search. Officers can also issue fixed penalty notices as an alternative to prosecution.

In March, the Home Office, the police, and the Civil Aviation Authority launched a communication strategy, Operation Forever Wing, aimed at raising public awareness of the regulations governing unmanned aircraft and use. That will continue throughout this year.

The big picture

As well as galvanizing the UK’s police response, the Gatwick incident highlighted a broader range of connected issues. These include: the explosion of unmanned aviation, which in most cases is in amateur hands; potential risks to the safety of other aircraft and their passengers; and the responsibility of manufacturers to make drones identifiable and ensure that they are unable to stray into protected airspace.

It also highlighted media hysteria about drones and other robotic technologies; the unified traffic management challenge of our increasingly crowded skies; the security of our communities and critical infrastructure; and whether incursions into protected airspace are a police or aviation authority matter, or more the remit of the military and national security agencies.

These are far from minor concerns. According to data presented at the eForum, drone pilots are already by far the largest aviation community in the UK, with 260,000 registered users, yet just 6,000 of those are professional operators. This means that most drone pilots know little about aviation and even less about the regulation of civilian airspace, or about public safety and security.

By comparison, Statista estimates that there are 330,000 qualified pilots of traditional aircraft in the whole world. So, it stands to reason that as the commercialisation of drones continues apace, there will soon be more drone pilots in the UK alone than there are pilots of manned aircraft on the planet.

This makes “continuous education” essential, said Anne-Lise Scaillierez, Partner at autonomous systems consultancy The Drone Office and Director of ARPAS-UK, the UK Drone Association. This is especially important now that the latest UK UAS regulations no longer make a distinction between professional and recreational use, but instead adopt a risk-based approach.

Delivering nuisance to your door

The wider context is the fast-approaching world of drone deliveries, including (at some point) by autonomous devices. In the US last year, Amazon, FedEx, and UPS were among the companies trialling beyond visual line of sight (BVLOS) flights in authorized test zones, with cautious approval from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA).

At present, most such remotely piloted drones are designed to carry small packages and have a range of about 15 miles. This suggests that e-commerce giants and logistics companies see huge potential in unmanned urban deliveries to consumers within minutes of them placing an order. Our on-demand gratification culture is getting faster by the day.

As I reported last year, in the US alone Amazon delivers 2.5 billion packages a year and rising – which is fewer than FedEx (three billion) and UPS (4.7 billion). A combined 10 billion packages a year, just from those three companies, is roughly 27 million parcels a day, and that’s just in the US.

If just 10% of those were delivered by drone, there would be 2.7 million drone flights daily over US cities. Yet if only one percent of those packets were delivered by drone, it would still mean 270,000 drone flights a day – again, just from three large companies. Even that tiny percentage would represent a huge uptick in air traffic from the fewer than 6,000 daily passenger flights in the US, and the 100,000 that take place every day globally (in normal, pre-Covid times).

Put simply, if just one percent of the packages delivered by three enterprises in the US were sent by drone, there would be nearly three times more drones in the sky daily than there are passenger planes flying worldwide.

In the UK, the issue is even more pressing: 3.5 billion packets under two kilograms are delivered in Britain every year, which is roughly 25% of Europe’s total e-commerce activity. That’s only one-third of the quantity delivered in the US, but over a landmass that is 40 times smaller.

So, if drone deliveries in Britain were to take off at a similar scale to the US, the skies over British cities could become crowded with thousands of unmanned rotorcraft – up to 13 times more than in the same area of US airspace. The low-carbon aspects of drone deliveries are attractive, of course, but the environmental impact in other areas of our lives would be significant. Would most people accept the noisy, nuisance-filled reality of such a world?

It’s an economic opportunity – potentially a massive one, including for the infrastructure supporting hundreds of new commercial ventures. According to PwC, mass UAS adoption could add £42 billion to the UK economy and create 648,000 new jobs by 2030. But the noise, nuisance, and privacy aspects of such a world – thousands of buzzing, whining drones with exposed rotors flying above people’s heads, past windows, and over gardens, buildings, schools, hospitals, offices, and city streets – are never discussed.

Bear in mind, these remotely piloted or autonomous vehicles would also need to avoid people, buildings, power lines, traffic, and each other, and fly safely morning, noon, and night in every weather condition, regardless of the technology platform in play.

The first child or pet to be maimed by a drone, or helicopter to be downed by one, would turn public opinion against the concept overnight. And there would have to be a much more compelling incentive for creating that level of disruption, noise, risk, and nuisance than simply getting someone’s pizza, trainers, or AirPods to them more quickly than an electric van, bike, or scooter.

Critical thinking about the possible future of urban drone deliveries at scale suggests that counter-drone attacks, thefts of/from drones, and NOMBY (not over my back yard) activism would be likely outcomes, as citizens seek to preserve their peace, rebel against the intrusion into their lives, or see opportunity falling from the sky.

I put the point about nuisance, noise, and loss of privacy to the conference, but only Kevin Woolsey, Policy Lead for UAS at the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA), offered any response. He said:

I think these things are being considered. Colleagues in the innovation area at the CAA and the DfT are doing work in this area.

That’s hardly a comprehensive, definitive, or confidence-inspiring answer. I’m not aware of there being a single session on noise, nuisance, and quality of life at any drone conference, but there are countless presentations on policing, security, safety, air traffic management, and insurance. Given the potential impact, that needs to change.

Insuring the future

Insurance is part of the problem. A new world of per-usage/per-mile insurance is emerging alongside the clear trend towards on-demand personal transport. BVLOS and autonomous drone insurance will be a big part of it, as will insurance for driverless car journeys. Start-ups like By Miles already operate in car insurance, while the likes of UK start-up Flock are focusing on insuring drone flights.

But even this may dramatically increase the noise nuisance and intrusion in our cities. With higher premiums for any drone flight above critical infrastructure, transport networks, public buildings, or offices, for example, it stands to reason that there will be an economic incentive to route flights over gardens, parks, residential streets, and areas of natural beauty. The economic savings from doing so could be colossal, but quality of life would be a big price to pay.

Nevertheless, Robert Courts MP, Parliamentary Under Secretary of State at the Department for Transport, is upbeat at the UK’s prospects. He said:

The government fully supports the increased widespread adoption of this technology, but equally recognises that any innovation in aviation needs to be adopted in a way that is safe, environmentally sustainable, and publicly acceptable.

I’m really pleased to announce that the government will be working with the Drone Industry Action Group to develop and publish a joint ambition statement for the future of the commercial drone sector. This will be developed through engagement with the drone sector and other interested parties, and its aim will be to increase the use of drones in society but in a safe and beneficial way.

It is vital that we have appropriate regulation of drone use, and indeed appropriate regulation of the use of all types of unmanned aircraft. And the government also recognises the importance of ensuring that our operational responders, most notably the police, have the powers they need to effectively respond to unmanned aircraft misuse.

But the question remains whether mass adoption of drones for non-essential tasks, such as delivering small consumer goods, would itself be a misuse of the technology.

My take

Just as the adoption of driverless cars at scale will reduce private car ownership but increase the amount of traffic in cities (see my report earlier this year for why), the debate about drones exhibits a complete lack of common sense.

These technologies are supposed to improve the quality of life for both city and country dwellers. But while no one doubts the ability of drones to transform some sectors for the better – infrastructure maintenance and agriculture among them – the idea of filling the skies above our towns and cities with thousands of noisy, dangerous rotorcraft delivering non-essential goods is, frankly, both ludicrous and horrifying.