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Drone disruption: The problems caused by unmanned aircraft

Last week one of the biggest events in the tennis calendar was disrupted as a small drone crashed into the stands at the Louis Armstrong Stadium. The US Open clash between Flavia Pennetta and Monica Niculescu may have only experienced a brief hiatus and no spectators, thankfully, were hurt, but the incident was unfortunately not a one-off.

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Just two days after the crash at the Grand Slam match, a drone also crash-landed at the University of Kentucky football stadium prior to the match against Louisiana-Lafayette and it’s not just sporting events that are falling foul of amateur aviation enthusiasts. Emergency services are also struggling, with drones posing a significant hazard to airborne firefighters and medical teams. According to the US Forest Service there have been more than 13 instances of drones interfering with attempts to extinguish wildfires since the start of 2015. Not only do they risk endangering individuals that may be caught up in the blaze, they also pose a serious threat to emergency services staff.

Increasingly, drones are proving more of a disruptive influence than a great technological enabler and part of the reason is that the legal system is responding much slower than the technology industry. Recent developments have made drones more easily available to members of the public and subsequently we are seeing an increasing number of vehicles in the hands of people who have little to no aviation experience. In the US alone, for example, drone sales are expected to total 700,000 this year, marking an increase of 270,000 when compared with 2014 and up 572,000 compared to the year previous.

Although the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has started a “Know Before You Fly” campaign aimed at raising awareness of safe drone use, it seems to falling on deaf ears. Safety guidelines include that aircraft must fly below 400 feet, must remain clear of manned aircraft operations and should not fly near airports, people or stadiums, but reckless drone use continues to make the headlines.

There has been much legal wrangling over commercial drone use, causing delays to projects by Amazon and Google but consumer drone use has received less stringent action. This is, partly, a reasonably stance to take as commercial drones are generally heavier and can reach faster speeds, making them significantly more dangerous than those in the hands of the public. But consumer drones can weigh nearly 3 kilograms and achieve speeds of 50mph, which is still large enough and fast enough to cause damage to people and other aircraft.

Following recent incidents, law enforcement is taking a dim view of any disruptions caused by drones. Daniel Verley, the owner of the drone that interrupted last week’s US Open tennis match, was arrested for reckless endangerment, reckless operation of a drone and operating a drone in a New York City public park outside of a prescribed area and is due in court at a later date.

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Although no one has yet been seriously injured as a result of a consumer drone, the growing number of incidents is concerning. It’s important for regulators to not only pass legislation on drone use, but also raise the public’s awareness of their own responsibilities so that the teething problems surrounding this new technology do not lead to a serious accident.