5 Reasons Our Drone Nightmare May Be Just Beginning

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After the FAA announced strict new guidelines on drone use this month, some industry observers said it’s not enough to address a growing problem. In 2015, there have been hundreds of close encounters between drones and commercial aircraft. Drones have frequently been spotted illegally flying around stadiums; one even crashed on the White House lawn. While several countries have already foiled terrorists planning attacks with these unmanned aircraft, malicious intent isn’t necessary to cause a tragedy. And things may only get worse. Just four years ago, the government estimated 30,000 of these aircraft would be flying in U.S. airspace by 2020; now, the agency says 1 million drone aircraft will be sold this holiday season alone. How we accommodate all these unmanned aircraft will impact everything from national security to privacy in our own homes.


5. More Drones Means More Close Calls With Aircraft

There have been four times the number of close encounters between drones and commercial aircraft as in 2014. © Andrew Xu

The number of close encounters between drones and commercial aircraft rose about 400 percent this year. © Andrew Xu

Unmanned aerial drones certainly have many beneficial uses, from package delivery to mapping and carrying supplies to remote areas. And they’re great fun for hobbyists. But when hundreds of thousands — if not millions — of these unmanned aircraft are added to U.S. airspace, the potential for problems multiplies. According to the FAA, commercial pilots reported 650 encounters with drone aircraft as of early August 2015; compare that with 238 similar situations for all of 2014. Many close calls required evasive action on the part of pilots. A close encounter is defined as an approach of a drone within 500 feet of an aircraft; one study notes there were 28 such encounters between December 2013 and September 2015. Drones overflying wildfire blazes out west have actually forced firefighters to suspend operations due to safety concerns.

Modern drones now available are larger and more powerful, and capable of long-duration flights over longer ranges. Current FAA rules prohibit drone flights above 400 feet or within five miles of an airport, covering a good swath of many major metropolitan areas. But some of these drone sightings were reported at altitudes of up to 10,000 feet. Military pilots have experienced similar incidents; the Washington Post reported a U.S. Air Force KC-10 refueling tanker had to take evasive action in June after a near miss with a drone over a Philadelphia suburb. Some aviation analysts say the threat from these aircraft may be overstated. Even if a hobbyist’s drone were to get sucked into a jet engine, pilots practice how to handle engine failures.


4. Drones Flying Near Stadiums Raise Terror Concerns

Illegal drone flights near sports stadiums have raised security concerns. © Jim Bahn

Illegal drone flights have been reported around many stadiums in the U.S. © Jim Bahn

There’s been a rise in drone flights near and in stadiums. In one case this year, a drone actually crashed into the stadium during a University of Kentucky home football game. So far, all such incidents have been classified as either accidental encroachments into restricted airspace, or uneducated users not being aware of the rules. Now, imagine the potential for terrorists to use these unmanned aircraft to deliver explosives, chemical weapons, or even firearms. The Department of Homeland Security has even employed radar at major sporting events to spot potential drone threats.

Of course, actively shooting down drones during a public event is probably a bad idea; officials can, however, prosecute the users under FAA rules if they can be identified and traced back to the owner. Beyond safety concerns, sports teams also have another interest to protect: their multi-million dollar product licensing copyrights and trademarks, featuring team images, video and logos.


3. Drone Crash at White House Highlights Risks

This quadcopter crashed on the White House grounds in January. Credit: Secret Service

This quadcopter crashed on the White House grounds in January. Credit: Secret Service

A quadcopter that crashed on the White House lawn in January certainly caught the attention of the Secret Service. And although the operator was not charged because it was an accident, the incident raised some alarming concerns. Imagine how easy it would be for terrorists to crash an explosives-laden drone on the White House grounds on purpose. Short-sighted sensation seekers (re: You Tube-inspired idiots) have already demonstrated “weaponized” personal drones by mounting handguns on them.

Nuclear power plants, dams, and other high-profile secure installations are suddenly open targets, because our defense procedures were not designed to prevent these sorts of attacks. According to a Wall Street Journal report earlier this year, French authorities have investigated a “series” of illegal drone flights over more than a dozen French nuclear power plants. And authorities in several countries, including the U.S., Germany and Spain, have foiled planned terrorist attacks using drones. The potential threat posed by these unmanned aircraft has almost overnight created an industry of defense companies offering new ways to detect and prevent these flights.


2. Drone Surveillance Raises Troubling Issues

A surveillance drone flies over New York City. © Ivan Cholakov

A surveillance drone flies over New York City. © Ivan Cholakov

Is George Orwell’s mass surveillance state envisioned in the book 1984 finally upon us, as fleets of camera drones patrol the skies? Imagine an America filled with tiny aircraft flying outside the windows of locker rooms, peering into homes, apartments and high-rise condo windows, etc. This is not science fiction — it’s already happening, albeit on a small scale. Scores of drone-snooping incidents have been reported in the past couple of years. Now, imagine a new generation of smaller, more powerful and easier to operate drones, some the size of a hummingbird.

Then there is the thorny issue of unmanned aerial vehicles being used by the government and local law enforcement for surveillance on the public. Existing laws will need to be rewritten to address privacy concerns. Can a private citizen shoot down a drone on their property? What if the household dog attacks an Amazon delivery drone? Questions such as these are already being debated around the U.S.


1. Brace Yourself: Drone Sales Expected to Surge

As drone technology improves and prices come down, expect sales to surge. © Tyler Olson

As drone technology improves and prices come down, expect sales to increase. © Tyler Olson

Once the sole province of weekend hobbyists, drones are now used in an array of commercial pursuits, from wedding photography to journalism and more. Real estate agents now use drones to show off prospective properties. The new federal restrictions announced this month require that drones be registered before their first flight. There are penalties of up to $27,500 for refusing to comply. Obviously, those with malicious intent will refuse to do so, and some analysts have suggested that drone registration will be required at the point of sale in the future. Of course, this also raises the issue of how used drones will be regulated on the open market … will you need to transfer the registration along with the resale of a drone on Amazon or Craigslist?

As we’ve seen with many other tech items in the past, as technology advances and prices drop, sales will increase. As noted earlier, the FAA expects up to 1 million unmanned aircraft to be sold this holiday season. Can we have faith that citizens will comply with guidelines for use? Or are accidents inevitable? Fortune magazine reports the FAA is sending a representative to Walmarts nationwide in an effort to inform salespeople on educating the public on the legal use of drones. When depending upon the transitory Walmart labor force to educate consumers about drone regulations is part of any federal strategy, it’s clear a more comprehensive plan is needed. For better or worse, expect to see more drones in the news in 2016.


Written by

David Dickinson is a backyard astronomer, science educator and retired military veteran. He lives in Hudson, Fla., with his wife, Myscha, and their dog, Maggie. He blogs about astronomy, science and science fiction at www.astroguyz.com.