The night was balmy, the bride beautiful, the moon high. All at once we noticed a small alien battleship swooping down. Part-Apocalypse Now, part-Mad Max, this airborne robot, the size of a small coffee table, bristled with lights and turrets. It looked angry, but was surprisingly nimble. After a ripple of alarm, word went around that it was a remote-controlled photo-graphy drone. Happily, it didn’t fall out of the sky and hit the groom on the head, as in one popular YouTube clip, but hovered over us, a harbinger of the new robotic life we will increasingly be growing used to.
Drones — pilotless robotic aircraft or, more properly, unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) — are going mainstream. Since the first use of armed drones in the Iran/Iraq war in the 1980s the d-word has conjured visions of death and destruction. In the past two weeks they’ve made headline news: Israeli forces, who previously had a military edge in their ability to kill with drones, have for the first time shot down a drone operated by Hamas.
So it seemed a stunt when, last year, Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos mooted that the company could use drones to deliver its parcels. But he wasn’t joking: the company claims to have a Prime Air drone ready to fly, and is optimistic it will persuade the US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to legalise its use by 2015.
Elsewhere, Google and Facebook have spent hundreds of millions of pounds acquiring drone-developing companies. The social media site Dronestagram caters to a world of hobbyist drone photographers and there’s a current craze for taking drone selfies, known as ‘dronies’. Remote-controlled drones by licensed operators are also being used by estate agents to value houses more accurately and by farmers to improve crop yields by distributing pesticides more effectively. The BBC is setting up a drone unit; branded Fendi drones flew over the catwalk to live-stream its A/W 2014 show in Milan; and Francesco’s Pizzeria in Mumbai has clocked an e-commerce first by delivering a margarita by drone.
‘People have been making remote-controlled flying things for a while, really since the Second World War,’ says Richard Walker, managing director of developer Shadow Robot Company. ‘What has recently changed is that component parts that used to be expensive — from the sensors, which go into the autopilot systems, to the gyroscopes, which work out rates of rotor rotation — are now used in mobile phone manufacture and so have become really cheap. Suddenly you can have an affordable device that is fun and easy to fly.’
This means that as the commercial possibilities of parcel delivery or documentary making open up at one end of the market, so does the potential at the amateur end of drone flying. Where the old remote-control miniature helicopters were hard to control and useless for photography, drone photography affords spectacular images (including the winner of a recent competition held by National Geographic magazine, shot from inches above an eagle in flight). And it is accessible. On Amazon, a drone and camera can be yours for £52.75. For less than £400 you can order a quadcopter drone with a 2.4GHz camera from the home electrical store Maplin. You can have it in the air in a few minutes and flying 100m away from you in ten seconds. Soon, Selfridges will launch the Rolling Spider MiniDrone from tech company Parrot; for £89.99 you will have a cute, paper plane-size drone weighing only 55g, with a built-in camera you can control from your iPhone. Maplin says its sales of camera drones have gone up 200 per cent in the past couple of months and predicts they will be the Christmas present for 2014.
Will there soon be a day when you can hardly see the sun from the beach for all the ‘dronies’ being taken? It seems possible — drones have already been banned from American National Parks such as Arizona’s Grand Canyon, since they were being used in numbers big enough to be considered a detriment to the peace and serenity of the setting. In the US, the FAA predicts that there will be 7,500 civilian drones in the air within five years, and experts at the aerospace consultancy Teal Group see the global market for civil drones accelerating by the end of the decade, rising from sales of about £44m last year to £520m by 2022.
And it’s not just keen photographers getting excited. This autumn you will be able to buy an AirDog drone that follows you about faithfully; and a Ukrainian developer is trying to programme a drone to go to the bar for you.
Should you feel yourself bitten by the drone-bug, London hobbyists get together regularly via the DroneZone group on, often at Hackspace on the Hackney Road. An upcoming event promises the chance to buy parts using the cyber currency bitcoin.
There are risks. For now, anyone can fly a drone, as long as they abide by the same rules that apply to model aircraft: they must not be used within 50m of a building or person, and they must remain within line of sight — ie, fly no more than 500m from their operator. But any Tom, Dick or Harriet can buy one off the shelf; there are no age restrictions.
Despite drone discussion boards being full of descriptions of ‘death drops’ (where devices lose power and plummet to the ground), to date UK drone accidents seem limited. The Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) has prosecuted just two UK drone users this year: one whose drone flew out of control close to a nuclear plant; the other whose drone was deemed to be ‘out of the line of sight’ at Alton Towers. Perhaps this is because, to use drones in built-up areas or one that’s not lightweight, you need a commercial licence from the CAA. So, counterintuitively, a fleet of remote-controlled commercial drones might be a safer proposition than ones steered by hobbyists.
To make a commercial business out of drones you have to be sure you have a safe product that isn’t going to crash, says Walker. ‘If it did, it would be very expensive. You need to design drones that won’t fall out of the sky if the motor goes; which have sensors so they won’t bump into things. The big barrier to flying random things around the sky is public trust. But the CAA has a certification programme and if it deems the drones fit to pass the certification, they are as safe in the sky as anything else.’
Ben Fisher, 28, who runs the London-based startup, an online marketplace supplying drone services, says, ‘The UK is leading the world in terms of the drone economy. In the States the FAA doesn’t allow commercial drone operations. But in the UK the CAA has licensed over 300 drones — up from about 30 last year. It’s a hugely exciting and growing market.’
On his site you can book drones for film and photography. Furthermore, you will barely see a nature documentary now that doesn’t employ these silent, subtle cameras, and the shots of jumps at the Winter Olympics were often taken by drones, as was the motorbike race sequence in Skyfall. You can hire drones for tasks such as inspecting high bridges to see if they need repair; scanning in detail the areas beneath which you might wish to build a tunnel; surveying the volume (and hence value) of raw material stockpiled at an industrial mine. The cost starts at about £250 for simple wedding shots, and ranges to some £5,000 a day for industrial use. ‘The question becomes what can you not do by drone? What we have now is just the beginning,’ says Fisher.
Certainly, this view is shared by Amazon. On 9 July the company sent a letter to the FAA setting out its plans to launch a fleet of Prime Air drones capable of delivering packages in 30 minutes or less; of travelling at over 50mph with a range of 25 miles (one drone could, for example, deliver anywhere within the M25); and of carrying weights of up to 5lbs (and thus able to deliver 86 per cent of all Amazon parcels). The company claims its eighth-generation models are ‘ready to go’ and has highlighted its desire to begin use ‘as soon as we are permitted to do so’, adding: ‘One day, seeing Amazon Prime Air will be as normal as seeing mail trucks.’
Alex Tutty, a partner at the media technology law firm Sheridans, who works with Bookadrone to ensure its drones are working legally, isn’t worried by the prospect of a drone-filled airspace. ‘The CAA has done a good job in communicating the legal requirements for UAVs. The number of applications to the CAA for UAV licences is estimated to have increased tenfold in the past year but, so far, complaints haven’t increased at the same rate, which suggests that UAV use is being sensibly administered.’
What about privacy, and the prospect of anyone — or any company or government agency — peering in our windows? ‘Privacy remains key, as many drones will record audio, visual and audiovisual content from aerial space,’ he agrees, adding that such content risks falling foul of existing rulings on infringement of privacy. But the issue is how the laws can be enforced. A US Kickstarter project called Domestic Drone Countermeasures is trying to raise money to develop a ‘personal drone-detection system’ so that people can monitor their privacy for themselves.
We may all soon become subject to the kind of snooping that celebrities have long had to tolerate. Certainly there are dystopian views of a future when the government or life-insurance companies can spy on us, but then, they don’t seem to need the help of drones. And on the flip side are the benefits. Big-game poaching could be stopped by drones with night vision — the first poaching attempts have now been foiled using drone technology. Aid packages could be speedily and accurately dropped into war-torn or flooded areas. Vaccines could be delivered to hard-to-access areas. Firefighters could use thermal imaging to find people trapped in burning buildings. Farmers could hugely improve their yields by targeting exactly which parts of their fields need more nutrients or less water, or assess over thousands of acres how well irrigation systems are working. Inspections of aircraft or oil rigs could be done without risk. ‘We might even be able finally to predict the weather, by sending drones into the clouds,’ says Walker.
Original article published in ES Magazine, in November, 2014