Joe Public likes drones and regulations, finds 'public dialogue'

Privacy? Yeah, they're a little worried about that too

A quadcopter drone seized by the Metropolitan Police
A quadcopter drone used for carrying illegal drugs into a prison. Pic: Met Police

The general public is keen on drones of all shapes and sizes but wants their operators to be registered and trained, according to a study carried out by the UK Department for Transport and the Ministry of Defence.

A joint exercise between the two government departments to encourage "public dialogue on drone use in the UK" resulted in the reluctant great unwashed suddenly becoming keenly supportive of all things drone, we are told.

Despite the upsurge in support for drone use by organisations such as the government and businesses, "the general public were seen as the highest risk group and most likely to cause accidents and incidents," according to the joint report on the exercise [40-page PDF].

This was put down to "the growing accessibility of drone technology" as well as "low awareness of regulations" by those questioned. Children and teenagers were said to be at greatest risk of misusing drones, in the view of Joe Public.

Anonymity and traceability were cited as key concerns, mainly because the 118 members of the public interviewed wanted to be able to track down drone operators easily if a "negative incident" occurred. Similarly, public concerns over the quality of materials (particularly in terms of "home-made machines" and cheap foreign imports) were also high. Women were reportedly more concerned about invasion of privacy through drone use than men.

Unsurprisingly, the solution to these woes was seen as registration for drone users, following some "prompted concern" by the study's authors. This is already implemented for commercial drone operators, by those unmanned aircraft operators using the military register or photographers using drones for area photography. The report noted: "Participants acknowledged that registration alone may not enable someone to identify a user in the moment, and set experts the challenge of finding solutions to this."

In conjunction with mandatory registration came the inevitable call for mandatory training, "particularly of public users". This, however, was suggested as online training at registration, suggesting some kind of click-through slideshow or similar – not particularly rigorous.

Carried out by market research agency TNS BMRB, the public dialogue's methodology involved about 50 representatives of public sector drone users – from government, the film industry, councils, police, insurance companies and academics – being brought together to talk shop. The second stage involved a selected handful of those experts being exposed to the 118 selected (controlling for age, gender, etc) members of the public, who were split into five roughly equal groups from around the country.

The experts first listened to the public talking about drones, then got involved in the conversations to offer their insights and technical information, before "challenging participants' priorities and strategies" by telling them how much their proposed regulatory schemes would cost the taxpayer.

The idea of the study was to inform public sector agencies about what the general population thinks about drone use at the moment and is likely to think about future developments.

Military drone use overseas and British use of military drones abroad but controlled from the UK were both excluded from the study's scope.

Oh dear, regulation again

On the whole, UK drone use is fairly innocuous and the harm caused by them is pretty minimal in the grand scale of things. However, it looks like the UK is preparing to start writing more restrictions and regulations for drone users, particularly targeting members of the public, and this is unlikely to have any practical effect. Most drone misuse (flying into close proximity with airliners, using them to peek through windows, and so on) is already illegal under the Air Navigation Order – not that anyone really seems to know this, or care.

It could well be that in the next year or two we see a new set of UK drone classifications based on use (tool versus toy) instead of weight alone, as well as specific criminal offences that will be sold to the public as a quick and easy way to target drone misuse. Any new regulations should be followed up with better public education and appropriate enforcement – but don't hold your breath. ®

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