On January 26, 2015, a quadcopter crashed onto the White House lawn, causing a lockdown, and renewing fears about the President’s safety. Of course, the media gleefully referred to it as a drone and included in their articles, dramatic and mildly sensationalist statements such as “this was believed to be the first time that a drone has penetrated the White House perimeter.”
As it turns out, there was nothing nefarious about the incident at all. A man called the Secret Service to admit that he was using his quadcopter recreationally, and didn’t mean for it to fly over the White House grounds.
Nevertheless, this incident has started (or perhaps rekindled) a discussion on the implementation of flying boundaries for drones. Since most drones contain a GPS, a popular solution is to load a map into the drone’s memory, and then define a number of “no fly zones”. When the drone reaches the border of one of thee zones, it will go no farther, or perhaps even fly in the opposite direction. Obviously, the entire White House property would be one of these zones, along with all restricted airspace and any other sensitive locations.
At first glance, this sounds like an excellent idea, with many obvious advantages:
- If your neighbour owns a drone and you’re worried that he might be flying it over your property and spying on you (or just simply annoy you), then you merely have to enter the GPS coordinates for each corner of your property to define the entire area as off-limits.
- If you are a celebrity or a public figure and you’re worried that some enterprising paparazzo might fly a drone over your backyard or cottage, or maneuver a drone up the side of your high-rise condo while taking photographs or videos, then the No Drone Zone is exactly what you need.
I also like this idea, in principle, and the web site does have a FAQ that addresses many user concerns – but I also foresee a number of logistical problems that will limit its usefulness and widespread implementation. In other words, in its present form, I just don’t think it’s going to fly.
- Let’s suppose that you’ve just bought a new house. If the previous owners set up a no-fly zone on their property, it is unlikely that they will remember to disable it. All of the activities associated with selling a house and moving its contents to a new location will likely take precedence. That means you, as a new homeowner, will have to apply to have the no-fly zone removed, and provide proof that you own the property. According to the web site’s FAQ, if you want to keep the no-fly zone in place while being allowed to fly your own drone, a fee will be charged, and you’ll have to install a piece of software in your drone.
- No Current Business Registrations. According to the FAQ, the no-fly zone applies only to residential properties, although they promise to include businesses in the near future. As a business owner, this means that (for the time being) there is nothing to stop your competitors from flying a drone up the side of your building and taking pictures of your office and of anything visible from the windows – storyboards, marketing posters, clothing designs, engineering projects, mock-ups, prototypes or computer screens.
- The web site FAQ states that since participation in their programme is voluntary, they can’t guarantee that establishing a no-fly zone will prevent all drones from flying over your property.
- Drone owners must update the database regularly, and there is no incentive to do this. Most people will install Windows security updates regularly because it will protect their computer against viruses and hackers. However, I think it’s less likely that people will voluntarily update software that will impose further restrictions on their device.
- Finally, in the United States, where one’s freedom is not only cherished but also fiercely protected, it’s unlikely that people are going to opt in to anything that limits where their drone can fly. I predict that they will be more apt to buy their drones from manufacturers who are not participating in this programme.
As promising as this initiative seems, I just can’t see a large-scale adoption. Mainly because it assumes that we are all team players who are willing to make a few small sacrifices for the common good, and who won’t act in our own self-interest. If this plan is going to work, then in my opinion, the implementation needs to be wide-ranging and far more draconian:
- Participation by all manufacturers must be mandatory.
- Database updates will be done wirelessly and automatically.
- Databases will have an expiry date, after which the drone will cease to function (i.e. become “bricked”) unless the latest database version has been installed.
- An annual license fee may be charged for recreational users, and will most certainly be implemented for any commercial use of a drone, such as a pre-paid pizza delivery service.
- All drones and quadcopters must be registered, and the owner’s personal information must be verified before it can be activated.
- All drones and quadcopters must have an equivalent of a MAC address, so that any airspace breaches can be traced to the owner.
- All drones and quadcopters must have the ability to be disabled remotely.
- Photographs and videos will be either saved to an internal SD card, or transmitted to a central database (tied to the user’s account) so that there is a record of any potential unlawful activity.
And you thought that George Orwell painted a depressing portrait of a future surveillance society… I’m not particularly enamoured by my predictions either, but this is what I see.
Yes, there will undoubtedly be a hue and cry from many enthusiasts about unnecessary government interference in what they consider a harmless hobby, but I anticipate restrictions like these in the not-too-distant future, as drones and quadcopters become more popular. They are just toys now, but in my opinion, these toys will be regulated, controlled and tracked like nothing we’ve ever seen before.
Yes, it will be interesting to see whether the No Drone Zone (in its present form) takes off or stalls.