Growing use of civilian drones sparks security concerns

A camera drone operated by a civilian flies near the scene where two buildings were destroyed in an explosion in New York, in this file photo taken March 12, 2014. (Reuters)

In the last two months a series of incidents around the globe have reignited the call by airspace security experts and agencies for a global regulatory framework to govern the civilian use of drones.

Just this week French authorities have been investigating the source and intention behind a series of mystery drones spotted over Paris.

“Of course terrorists could very well use not just drones, but also old-fashioned model aircraft for terrorist acts,” Richard Whittle, author of ‘Predator: The Secret Origins of the Drone Revolution,’ told Al Arabiya News.

“It is not hard to imagine that someone can put plastic explosives or something into an aircraft like that and fly it into a target,” he added.

This week several unmanned aircraft systems (UAS), more commonly known as drones, were spotted near the U.S. embassy and several landmarks in central Paris including the Invalides military museum, the Eiffel Tower, and Place de la Concorde for two consecutive nights, sparking a security scare in a country already on high alert.

It remains unclear whether the incidents were the work of pranksters, aerial photographers, tourists or whether there might be reason for a bigger concern.

But it is illegal to fly drones at night in France, and only those with permits are allowed to fly them in French airspace during daytime.

These latest sightings have renewed questions about still, as of yet, unidentified drone flights near nuclear power plants in France last year and revived the debate on security risks posed by the unregulated use of civilian drones.

Illustrarion of a drone flying over Saint-Cloud on Febuary 27, 2015 in Paris. (AFP)

Illustrarion of a drone flying over Saint-Cloud on Febuary 27, 2015 in Paris. (AFP)

On Wednesday Morocco banned the import of drones and remote-controlled flying-objects altogether, citing security concerns.

Whittle said that although drones are a “magnificent tool,” when used for tasks such as monitoring crops, they can also pose a threat to public safety.

“These drones sometimes are quite small, and yet if they fall on you with some velocity from the air someone can be easily seriously injured or killed even,” he said, who is also a global fellow at the Wilson Center.

A dramatic increase in the number of drones flying dangerously close to aircraft during landings and takeoff in the United States has prompted the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to propose a new set of rules on the civilian use of drones recently, reported CBS News.

The FFA said there had been approximately 60 reported sightings of drones by pilots each month in 2015 so far.

"We believe that there's a significant number of people that are out there that simply don't know what the rules are,” FAA Administrator Michael Huerta told CBS News. “At the same time, we have enforcement tools that are available to us, and we do take reports of reckless activity very, very seriously.”

Richard Whittle said there were two main concerns with drones – the first was that of the danger they pose to aircraft.

“This little drone, like a bird, that can get sucked into a jet’s engine and cause it to stop functioning with obvious consequences,” Whittle said.

The second problem, he explained, was privacy.

“Like any technology they can be misused…It’s now possible for my neighbor, or someone who is not my neighbor but who just wants to be mischievous to fly a drone next to my window and peak inside onto what’s going on in my home.”

Reports about women captured while sunbathing nude in their backyards by civilian or commercial drones have been circulating the Internet for years he said.

“We all like our privacy and it’s important that we’d be able to protect it,” added Whittle. “This is a new form of surveillance which can also be misused by governments, potentially.”

“I do think that the experts need to come up with ways to perhaps require people who fly drones to have a license of some sorts, that’s a thought. Or to require that no drone be flown that hasn’t been inspected and been approved as safe and air worthy so that you know that it is not simply going to fall out of the sky and injure someone,” he added.

Also Read: Drones to buzz over UAE with govt deliveries.

The U.N. air safety body, the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) told Al Arabiya News that educating the public on the safe use of drones was an “urgent challenge.”

“There is only one aerospace system serving the global community. Therefore states, regulators and airspace users must understand the importance of adapting the existing regulatory framework to the needs of this rapidly-growing new member and the customers it will be serving,” said the ICAO.

“Finding effective solutions requires a deep understanding of the issues and the underlying ‘what, how and why’ answers that led to the existing manned aviation regulations.”

“Complicating this is the very rapid development of technologies that far outpace the ability of states, ICAO and the standards-making organizations to establish regulations,” the ICAO added.

The ICAO is already bringing together civil aviation professionals, experts and drones manufacturers next month to discuss “possible solutions, and discover how the evolving ICAO Standards will help shape the future of RPAS [remotely piloted aircraft systems].”

Also Read: Pizza might fly? Mumbai restaurant tests out delivery by drone.

But French criminologist and airspace security expert Christophe Naudin thinks “the development of UAV [unmanned aerial vehicles] technology is essential to our society” and missing out on its use for “paranoid reasons” is “madness,” he said.

“Today in 2015, aerial drones are not dangerous objects. But in 2020/ 20125, they will be surely. Current drones have low transport capacity and reduced autonomy. Tomorrow, it will no be longer the case. This technology will evolve greatly,” Naudin said.

Like any invention, drones can be used in criminal acts, he said.

“Aren’t cars, which are a wonderful transportation tool, used sometimes for robberies and kidnappings? Aren’t mobile phones used to trigger remote explosive devices?”

“Drones are great machines for multiple military services but also for industrial uses: monitoring power lines, pipelines, architecture, television, aerial photography etc,” said Naudin, adding that “radical reactions” such as Morocco’s ban are "counterproductive" and will not solve anything.

But Whittle said the world would come to adapt to the use of this new technology.

“When the automobile came along the world of transportation changed, and we needed new roads, we needed stop lights, we needed new regulations for how people were going to be permitted to drive."

“We’re in the beginning stages of a revolution here, a drone revolution. And we need as societies new regulations and new methods of enforcement of those regulations to make sure that we get the benefits from this technology and reduce to the greatest degree possible the risks and the problems they can create.”

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