Mike Fay: Drones have lots of uses but still be careful

Drones given as Christmas presents

With drones one of the most popular gadgets for Xmas, Mike Fay, a scientist at the University of Nottingham, looks at the issues around their use.

While it is the 21st century and we still don’t have our flying cars, we do have our flying cameras.

Anyone got a drone for Christmas? For the boy or girl who wants the best toys – particularly if they are in their 30s or 40s – the drone, with attached camera, may have been the most desired present.

If 2014 was the year of the “selfie”, as the media have proclaimed, 2015 may see more people photographing themselves not with a mobile in hand, or on the end of a stick, but from a small flying object some few feet above them.

This prospect is one that a number of people view with some concern. One attractive subject for drone filming is sport, which has long used aerial photography. Anyone who went up to Yorkshire to watch the first stages of the 2014 Tour de France will have heard the massed helicopters long before they saw the riders; and Test Match days at Trent Bridge have often seen a blimp suspended safely above the River Trent.

These organised aerial shots, regulated by the Civil Aviation Authority, are not a problem – but unlicensed and possibly untrained drone operators can be.

In September, the packed crowd of the City Ground had a drone flying above them as they assembled for a Forest home game. While they may be small, having one drop from a height onto a crowd would be dangerous to say the least, and the police were called.

The rules on drones currently are that it isn’t illegal to fly one as long as no commercial profit is being made, but it’s not acceptable to fly within 150m of a congested area or large crowd of people.

The use of drones in filming sport has already produced recorded injury. In April 2014, a triathlete in a race in Australia was hit when the drone filming the runners fell out of the sky, while in October a fan at an American Football game in Florida received a “mild abrasion” from a drone.

They can also be used by the unscrupulous to disrupt sport, as shown by the recent abandonment of the Serbia-Albania football match after a flag-waving drone descended onto the field.

But there is another group who can make good use of drones – scientists. Some scientists have been using them for a number of years now, to go in places that are too dirty or dangerous for manned flight.

If you need to fly just above ice floes in the polar regions, or into the gas plume of an active volcano, having the operator at a safe distance is much better than a pilot risking life and limb to collect data.

Another advantage is their size. Being smaller than manned aircraft, they are a lot quieter. Conservationists are able to use drones to fly low over jungles and savannah to monitor animal populations without scaring them. And they are now finally a lot cheaper than hiring a helicopter. Archaeologists, as anyone who used to watch Time Team will remember, have long made use of aerial photography. Drones equipped with miniaturised infra-red cameras have significantly brought down the cost of aerial surveys to tell those on the ground where to target their trowels.

So on the whole, I think drones do have the potential to be a good thing. But I’ll still be prepared to duck if I hear an approaching buzzing noise when I’m walking in the park this month.
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