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Crisis Response Journal Crisis Response Journal

When used responsibly, drones provide safety measures for all

Posted on 2nd February 2016 at 13:51pm

The use of drones has been giving rise to concerns among some citizens in the US and other parts of the world regarding their implications for the privacy and security of individuals. Yet both military and civil defense organisations are currently using these unmanned aerial vehicles to secure and monitor different types of activities in the hopes of protecting those very rights.

The availability of this technology is an extremely positive tool in the provision of safety and security (photo: Anthony Chou Droneflight)

In July 2015, the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (CAL FIRE) said that firefighters’ efforts were disrupted during the vital initial attack stage of a wildland fire. “As the fire burned toward the public driving on the nearby interstate 15, firefighters were unable to utilise any aircraft to help hold back the blaze that would torch vehicles and force motorists to flee on foot from the oncoming flames. The reason? Several hobby drones, or UAS (unmanned aircraft systems), were seen flying in the fire area, forcing officials to ground all responding aircraft,” it said.

“The North Fire is just one of many recent incidents in which hobby drones have caused disruptions in the suppression of California's major wildfires,” the department continued. “Hobby drones are an increasingly common sight all across the state. While a hobby drone can be a fun toy and even a valuable tool for many professional flyers, a drone flown irresponsibly can pose a serious danger, particularly during a wildfire.”

The British Airline Pilots Association (BALPA) says a spate of serious near misses involving drones highlights the need for urgent action to integrate them in to airspace safely and prevent a collision with other aircraft. 

In December the UK Proximity Board looked at seven incidents involving drones, four of which were classed as the most serious category A, where a serious risk of collision existed. In one case a drone came very close to colliding with a Boeing 737, which was climbing out of Stansted. Other category A incidents took place at Heathrow, London City and Manchester.

Pilots say they welcome the growth in drone technology and can see important applications for them commercially and recreationally, but a collision with a commercial airliner or helicopter could be catastrophic.

BALPA has expressed concern that the number of incidents could rise further over the next few months as people take their new Christmas presents in to the air for the first time, often with little or no handling experience or understanding of the rules of the air. It is calling for stricter rules and a registration system so drone operators can be easily traced and prosecuted for any irresponsible flying. Pilots also want technology to stop drones from being able to fly in areas where they could meet commercial traffic to be routinely fitted to the devices.

And there have been numerous media reports about drones being used by paparazzi and private citizens to fly over private property, taking images without consent. In October 2015, a man from Kentucky was acquitted of wanton endangerment and criminal mischief after shooting down a drone flying above his property that he believed was spying on his 16-year-old daughter who was sunbathing in the garden.

While some tech-lovers applaud everyday drone usage for private or business applications, other citizens believe their use should be reserved for military purposes. The authors of this blog disagree, saying that drones are a vital tool for improving safety (photo: Anthony Chou Droneflight)

In the face of these increasing worries about safety and privacy with regard to the use of drones by private individuals, Canada’s air regulator has announced it will be updating its drone legislation this year. And in the first 30 days after the US Federal Aviation Administration’s (FAA’s) online registration system went live, nearly 300,000 owners registered their small unmanned aircraft.

The Civil Aviation Administration of China (CAAC) issued new rules applicable to civil unmanned aircraft, weighing no more than 116 kg in December 2015. Meanwhile, the UK Government is running a drones public dialogue that began in December 2015 and concludes in February 2016. “This process is about embedding the public view in future decision-making,” according to a spokesperson; the outcome of this work will feed into a much larger public consultation on drones in 2016, which will inform a government strategy to be published later this year.

These are just a few examples, drawn from around the world, that illustrate some of the concerns regarding safety and privacy that are concerning governments and citizens alike. This debate shows how people are concerned about these devices posing a safety risk, or when they are used to record images of other people without their consent, with the ensuing implications for the public use of drones where they are used to collect information about individuals.

Yet, the irony is that the United States military, and the militaries of other countries, have been using these same unmanned aerial vehicles to secure and monitor different types of activities in the hopes of protecting these very rights.

Security is necessary to build privacy and while some tech-lovers applaud everyday drone usage for private or business applications, other citizens believe their use should be reserved for military purposes. Overall, however, it is concerning that many are failing to recognise the implications these devices may have for local law enforcement, emergency medicine personnel and firefighters in their efforts to provide security. It is indisputable that first responders face a multitude of challenges and dangerous situations that benefit from the routine use of drones.

As previously reported in CRJ, both online and in the journal, the civil use of drones for safety and civil protection activities is gaining momentum. Indeed, in June 2015, Nigeria Security and Civil Defense Corps (NSCDC) acquired 500 drones and aircraft for proper surveillance of oil installations in the country, to help improve the NSCDC’s capacity to protect national assets and critical infrastructure. In 2014, we reported how the Dubai Civil Defence had purchased 15 quadcopters to patrol high-risk areas, such as industrial zones, to monitor and record fires.

In the event of a blaze, the drones, operated from Civil Defence stations, will be used to fly around a building on fire to help determine how best to handle the situation before firefighters arrive at the scene, reducing their risk.

The United States military and police currently use drones to monitor hostile situations and provide surveillance. One such drone, the Altura Zenith has High Definition (HD) ground monitors to photograph developing situations. These monitors can simultaneously relay live multi-stream on-station data to provide live multicast video to officers on the ground and command posts.

With dual day and night sensors, the drone’s cameras are capable of functioning around the clock. By maintaining visuals on any situation, regardless of the presence of light, the Altura Zenith, pictured above (photo courtesy Aerialtronics), acts as an important communication element for those involved in search and rescue efforts; this unmanned aerial vehicle not only assists in visualising situations on the ground to help rescuers reach those in need and prevent loss of life, but also in recovering victims’ remains. Drone technology therefore allows rescuers such as firefighters and medical response teams to gain a safer aerial view of a situation without putting additional lives at risk.

Another vital safety measure that the Altura Zenith and other drones are capable of maintaining is payload detection. Defined as the detection of gas, nuclear radiation, biological agents, and chemical agents harmful to humans, payload detection uses sensors to notify such dangers to rescuers and prevent them from entering contaminated areas. This technology is mostly useful in military warfare situations, such as detecting Sarin deployment, which appears as a gas and is harmful for human ingestion or inhalation. In addition, these sensors can also be used by emergency medicine response teams to determine whether any patients are contaminated and need immediate treatment.

Firefighters also stand to benefit from the use of the Altura Zenith and its counterparts by employing the drone to protect them from exposure to an array of noxious gasses. With its ability to work in extreme weather conditions and environments, the Altura Zenith can be trusted by firefighters to relay information steadily, even in the presence of high heat.

While the ready availability of drones still remains a concern for invasion of privacy issues when used by some members of the public, it is time for citizens to recognize the positive implications that the use of UAVs can offer civilian police officers, emergency medical response teams and firefighters. The availability of this technology is an extremely positive tool in the provision of safety and security.

Ian Portelli, Gabrielle O Donoghue, Shimona Lahiri 

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