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UK drone regulation 'in chaos' as flying gadget technology takes off

Worldwide, sales of drones reached a peak of 13.1 billion US dollars (9.69 billion) in 2016
Worldwide, sales of drones reached a peak of 13.1 billion US dollars (9.69 billion) in 2016

Regulation of privately owned drones is in a state of "chaos" as authorities belatedly wake up to the impact of the flying gadgets, according to a leading UK robotics expert.

Professor Noel Sharkey said he warned about the risks associated with rapidly growing numbers of drones in 2007, but few listened.

Now the "genie was out of the bottle" and the technology was taking off with little being done to contain it, he said.

Asked about the state of drone regulation at a news briefing in London, Prof Sharkey said: "Personally, I would say it's in chaos. It's somehow caught everybody by surprise - I don't know how it did that. I was certainly complaining about it in 2007.

"I'm not a futurologist and I never look far in the future, I look at current technology. To me, it didn't take any kind of deep thinking to realise what was going to happen with this at all."

Prof Sharkey, from the University of Sheffield, is the co-author of a new report on drones from the Foundation for Responsible Robotics, a not-for-profit organisation he helped set up.

He said it was impossible to estimate how many privately operated drones there were in the UK, but the number probably ran into the "hundreds of thousands".

Most are small devices powerful enough to carry a smart phone into the air, but still capable of reaching heights of around 500 feet.

Worldwide, sales of drones reached a peak of 13.1 billion US dollars (£9.69 billion) in 2016.

Instances of near misses with aircraft and drugs being airlifted into prisons are well known. But the report's authors also cited cases of ghoulish "disaster tourism" with drones recording video of unfolding tragedy on the ground, drones impeding helicopters in relief operations, drones being used to gain free access to sporting events and concerts, and even the police finding themselves being spied on as they investigated crimes.

"The police tell me that whenever they go to a crime scene now, very frequently they find a drone overhead," said Prof Sharkey. "They've no idea who owns it, is it the criminal, is it someone else, and they haven't got any means of tracking it."

New UK laws brought in just last month impose a ban on flying drones above 400 feet and within one kilometre of airport boundaries.

In addition, drones weighing 250 grams or more will in future have to be registered with the Civil Aviation Authority, and drone pilots will be expected to take an online safety test.

The report, Drones in the Service of Society, calls for more comprehensive rules and guidelines to address the safety and privacy issues surrounding drones.

In particular it highlights the need for more research into the psychological and stress impact of drones, a stricter stance on privacy and data protection applied to the technology, and greater consideration given to drone operations infringing "human dignity and justice".

The report also says there should be a strict requirement for private drone operators including non-governmental organisations (NGOs) to liaise with professional rescue teams in disaster zones.

To protect the environment, law-makers were also urge to consider introducing no-fly zones where drones are banned.

Recent research had indicated that animals could be "quite stressed" by drones without necessarily appearing to be disturbed.

For humans too, the sight of a drone hovering nearby could induce feelings of discomfort.

"In military applications of drones this has often been referred to as the 'chilling effect'," said the report.

It cited the example of residents of a refugee camp watching a drone flying overhead without knowing whether it was "operated by a humanitarian NGO, a private individual, or a malicious group".

"Operators and their collaborators can consider how best to communicate to the public about upcoming drone operations to lessen this effect," the report added.

Prof Sharkey and his co-authors stressed that drones could be of great benefit in areas such as wildlife protection, humanitarian aid, search and rescue, responsible journalism, and gathering evidence of social injustice.

However, there was a risk that inappropriate unregulated use of drones could lead to a disastrous clampdown.

"We mustn't throw the baby out with the bathwater," said Prof Sharkey.

"It is now clear that the responsible use of this technology could be enormously helpful to humanitarian work and environmental protection. When we have natural disasters, starving people in conflict, or emergency need for medicines, drones can come to the rescue."