Frame from ABC TV report showing drone close to Virgin 737

There was an alarming moment on last night’s ABC 7.30 report on the plague of cheap, tiny, and potent aerial drones when the low resolution video feed from one of them showed it coming far too close to a Pacific Blue 737 near an Australian airport.

And given the succinct observation on the program by John McCormick, CASA’s director of safety, that ‘the genie is out of the bottle’ there is clearly a need for governments and public safety authorities, including the police, to think both inside and outside of the square.

Going to the bloodier part of the situation, there is every reason to fear that idiots and criminals are likely to kill people with drones flown through road tunnels or head on through car or truck windscreens, just as murderous morons have in the past, been jailed, for killing and maiming drivers with rocks dropped off overpasses. Good policing occasionally wins through.

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There have even been a few cases of people pointing lasers at aircraft being caught, and imprisoned.  But unfortunately not many if any cases of those who direct lasers at football players or jockeys getting caught.

There are some obvious and less obvious ways in which drones could accidentally or deliberately maim or kill pedestrians, joggers, surfers and cyclists. And there is no doubt that despite the slipstream deflection which seems to have tumbled the drone which came too close to the Virgin Blue owned 737, the kinetic energy of an impact between a fast moving airliner and a drone could cause a crash killing hundreds of people in a jet, especially at the more vulnerable moments of a flight near an airport.

What might society reasonably expect of the law, especially new laws aimed specifically at the drone menace?

Being found with an unregistered drone, not marked with compulsory micro dots which would survive an impact, which would establish ownership, might be one useful step. You get pulled over during a traffic check. You have a proscribed or unregistered drone, you get busted.  Just as you should for an unlicensed firearm, or other prohibited weapons or drugs.

A specific right to privacy against intrusions by sensing devices and aerial cameras might be another important step. Satellite and normal mapping aerial imagery generally doesn’t achieve sufficiently high resolutions to constitute a threat to privacy. And as has already been done in the case of Google Street View cameras, some property owners, and those responsible for national security, have successfully intervened to have imagery removed or in the case of various defense sensitive sites, obscured.

The really useful commercial and defense applications of satellite and aerial platform imagery often include spectral observations or the use of penetrating radar to identify crop diseases or monitor quality of growth pre-harvest, or look at signal returns from a depth of some centimetres to reveal soil moisture content or near surface strata including hidden structures or geology.

But those applications while of immense importance, are not relevant to the vast numbers of lightweight and highly intrusive cheap drones that can be used to invade the privacy and living space of people at rest as well as in motion by any transport mode.

While the state works out what it can and should do about the small, unregulated and potentially dangerous, and invasive and nasty end of the drone spectrum the natural enemies of such devices include uncoloured nylon nets (while being mindful of bird life), a handy hose, and where or if lawful, an air gun, or a pump action paint ball rifle.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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