Rise of the drones has police and regulators scrambling to catch up

Technology and mass production have made unmanned aircraft widely available but some say alarm at their use is exaggerated

Ed Pilkington (140×140)

Ed Pilkington in New York

The Guardian, Friday 1 August 2014 13.50 EDT

Wardens at Lee Correctional Institution in Bishopsville, South Carolina, were taken aback a few weeks ago when they conducted a routine sweep of the prison grounds. They discovered quantities of marijuana, cigarettes and cellphones scattered among the bushes in the no man’s land that surrounds the maximum-security institution.

The guards were even more astonished to find in the middle of the stash of contraband a small, lightweight object, with propellers attached. Closer inspection revealed the item to be an unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV), better known as a drone, whose operators had evidently made an audacious attempt to breach the prison walls that had come unstuck when it crash-landed.

Another day, another drone controversy. The failed smuggling attempt in Bishopsville, disclosed this week, is just one among an ever-intensifying rash of stories relating to the remote-controlled devices as they make their onward march into American civilian life.

The little buzzy planes seem to be everywhere these days. At the glamorous high-end of American public life they have been given a huge publicity boost by Amazon who last month applied for formal federal approval to set up a testing site to develop its futuristic idea of a drone delivery service called “Prime Air”.

You know that an innovation has arrived in the country when even Martha Stewart embraces it. The doyenne of good living this week wrote a paean to UAVs for Time magazine titled “Why I love my drone”.

At the mass market end of the spectrum, drones are also increasingly impinging on the public consciousness, often for unfortunate reasons. Pilots of passenger jets have complained that there have been near misses with drones, such as an incident in Florida in March at Tallahassee regional airport.

Even more sensationally, the New York police department last month claimed that a DJI Phantom drone had flown at 2,000 feet above the George Washington bridge and had forced a police helicopter to veer off course. The two operators of the UAV have been charged.

This plethora of headlines belies the fact that drones – or model aeroplanes as they used to be called – have been popular in the US since at least the 1930s. The fuel behind the current flurry of interest is that technology and mass production have suddenly brought relatively cheap and sophisticated machines within the grasp of the general public.

DJI Phantoms of the sort flown over the George Washington bridge sell on Amazon for under $500, and if you add to it a high-definition video camera it still comes in at just $1,300.

“Interest is exploding because you can put eight hundred dollars on a credit card and walk out of the store with a DJI Phantom, charge a battery and fly. The good news is that more and more people are getting involved. The bad news is that they include some who misuse the equipment or just don’t know any better,” said Steve Cohen, a drone enthusiast who organises the New York city drone user group.

A powerful driver of the new fad for flying drones is the high-definition video camera that can be attached to the UAVs. Many of the new enthusiasts pouring into the hobby are not coming for the thrills and challenges of aviation, but for the photography. The technology has opened up new vistas, such as the dramatic footage captured on 4 July by drones flying through Independence Day firework displays.

The results may be pretty, but it’s presenting the government regulator in charge of US airspace, the Federal Aviation Authority, with an almighty headache. The FAA has set itself the daunting challenge of working out how to merge drone use with commercial flights through some of the world’s most congested routes.

“The FAA is taking a deliberate, measured approach to integrating UAS [unmanned aircraft systems] technology into the country’s airspace. Our challenge is to integrate unmanned aircraft into the same airspace used by commercial aviation, general aviation and other new users, including commercial space vehicles,” an FAA spokesman told the Guardian in a statement.

The problem is that while America waits for the FAA to produce these new regulations – the latest expected date is the end of next year – confusion appears to be setting in. The legal environment is not keeping pace with the mushrooming use of the planes, or as Cohen put it: “We have just seen the equivalent of the model T Ford hit the road, and the horse-and-buggy regulators don’t know how to deal with it.”

As a holding mechanism, the agency has introduced a set of guidelines that restrict civilian hobbyists to flying under 400 feet and with drones that weigh no more than 55lbs, as well as forbidding the commercial use of the devices for profit.

But that in itself has spread confusion. In a series of recent court rulings, judges have rejected the FAA’s attempt to police drone use, saying that its current rules are merely guidelines that do not carry the weight of the law.

In a recent case in Texas, an appeals court this week overturned an FAA ban on the use of drones by a local group, Texas EquuSearch, that uses the planes to search for missing people in the great outdoors. The federal agency had served the non-profit group with a cease and desist order, claiming that its activities were a violation of the prohibition on commercial use, but the court disagreed.

Brendan Schulman, a leading legal expert on drones who represented EquuSearch in that case, said that by failing to come forward with clear legal parameters, the FAA was holding back the research and development of this crucial technology. “For about a decade, the FAA has engaged in a process of trying to come up with rules for these devices and yet its only answer still seems to be ‘No, don’t do it’. As a result, a huge group of responsible, talented people who could otherwise have made a difference have been alienated.”

Schulman added that the dangers of the devices was often exaggerated, for instance in the case of the George Washington bridge where there is evidence that the police helicopter flew towards the UAV rather than vice versa. “Perhaps because of the word ‘drone’ or the perception that this technology is new, there’s an instinct to fear the worst. But UAVs have been used for years, and when you look behind the reports you often find a different truth.”