A minority of irresponsible users has been flying drones too close to aeroplanes and helicopters; wandering into restricted military airspace; spying on neighbours; disrupting sporting events; and even injuring people.
Regulators and law enforcers are struggling to cope with the growth in their popularity, increasing the likelihood that heavy-handed legislation could stifle innovation in a sector that has great commercial potential for businesses large and small.
Drones are already being used extensively by farmers to monitor the health of their crops and livestock. Multi-spectral cameras can analyse the level of moisture in the soil, plant health, and spot areas of blight or insect infestation. This saves them time and money and can help improve crop yields.
Advanced drones equipped with high-definition rotatable cameras, anti-shake technology, and the ability to track fast-moving action, are offering spectacular aerial photography and film-making capabilities for the news and creative media sectors.
Drones can reach places that are difficult and dangerous for humans to get to, and this is proving very useful in industry. Drones are now inspecting oil rigs, gas pipelines, electricity networks, chimneys, wind turbines, nuclear facilities, roofs – even underwater structures and cables. They are also useful for creating 3D maps of rural and urban landscapes.
The latest drones also allow users to specify the geo-fence area, reducing the chance of inexperienced pilots losing control and flying their drones into people or buildings.
While “return-to-home” and geo-fencing features are a step in the right direction, the proliferation of drones in our skies is likely to need a more comprehensive approach to policing and safety.
In the US, Nasa (the National Aeronautics and Space Administration) is co-ordinating the development of a traffic management system for unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) that fly below 500ft (152m).
When there are hundreds of low-flying drones carrying out a range of duties, from deliveries to traffic monitoring, disaster relief to building inspections, we are going to need “sense-and-avoid” systems so they don’t crash into each other, as well as flight corridors similar to those used by passenger aircraft.
Such a system will also need bang up-to-date terrain maps, dynamic route planning and weather data integration. Not surprisingly then, Nasa thinks a prototype of its traffic management system will not be ready before 2019.
But how do you police drone use effectively?
The CAA regulations are clear: the operator of a hobby drone must keep the drone in sight at all times and not fly it above 400ft. If it’s a surveillance drone, you cannot fly it over or within 150m of any congested area or organised open-air assembly of more than 1,000 people.
But given that the latest, most sophisticated drones have a range of up to two miles and can be programmed to fly automatically along prescribed routes, enforcing such rules is no easy task.
Only a few irresponsible drone users have been prosecuted so far around the world, and no-one has yet been sent to prison.
Until the police have the means to identify drones remotely, and access to a central database of owners, it is hard to see how they will be able to catch the growing number of miscreants.