Drones – lifesavers or a threat to liberty? David Reay weighs up the usefulness of drones against concerns over safety and privacy

They’re not just cool toys for flying in the park – drones offer a multitude of life and time-saving functions. But such usefulness has worrying consequences for safety and privacy.

One snowy night in May 2013, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police in the town of Saskatoon received a report about an overturned car on a remote highway. Concerned about the driver, they quickly launched a rescue mission. But when they arrived and searched the densely wooded area with the help of a helicopter, the driver was nowhere to be found.

Fortunately, it was at this point that he chose to make the most important phone call of his life. Disoriented and hypothermic, the 25-year-old was able to talk but could not tell officers where he was. So the RCMP called in its drone unit.

After triangulating his rough position from the phone call, forensic experts launched a thorough low-level search of the area with a sensitive thermal-imaging camera mounted on a Draganflyer drone. They found the dying man within minutes, curled up near a snow bank. He survived.

Such examples of the capabilities of commercial drones are plentiful, but drone technology is developing faster than governments can keep up with, meaning that many countries, including the UK, struggle to control their use.

In March, for example, a report by the UK Airprox Board revealed that there were 23 near misses with airliners in a six-month period in 2015, including a drone passing within 25 metres of a large jet near Heathrow. British laws ban the use of drones within 50 metres of any vehicle or structure, but pilots are now calling for more research into the severity of a drone strike.

Privacy concerns are also rampant. The US state of Utah is currently proposing a law that would prevent anyone, including police, from using drones to capture images. The European Union is considering similar legislation.

But perhaps most worrying is the weaponisation of ‘toy’ drones by terrorists. Itself long the victim of military drone strikes, Islamic State is thought to be adapting commercial drones to carry bombs: a terrifying prospect.

Striking a balance between drone exploitation and safety is likely to trouble regulators for many years to come.

Words: David Reay

Photography: Tomas Van Houtryve / ViiPhoto

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