An extensive inquiry into the into the operation and risks associated with Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) has catalogued a raft of serious safety concerns, cautioning that new privacy laws could be needed to control intrusive surveillance enabled by airborne cameras.
A report issued on Monday into the use of so-called ‘drones’ by the House of Representatives Standing Committee on Social Policy and Legal Affairs says that although the remotely-controlled devices are set to revolutionise farming, mining, policing, science and other industries, safety has now “become a prominent concern, with numerous injuries and near-misses reported across Australia.”
The House of Reps report comes as law enforcement and emergency agencies, commercial operators and hobbyists continue to buy what are officially termed ‘Remotely Piloted Aircraft’ (RPAS) in ever increasing numbers.
Now the trend is now forcing policy makers to weigh-up the risks and rewards of the technology.
Canberra’s ‘drone committee’ is now pushing the Abbott government to consider “legislating for a tort of privacy, as proposed in the discussion paper of the Australian Law Reform Commission’s Inquiry into Serious Invasions of Privacy in the Digital Era” because of the potential for intrusive abuse of the machines.
Part of the worry is that increasingly cheap flying machines coupled with ever more powerful cameras could create an airborne paparazzi surveillance state that would be nearly impossible to evade as they fly up and peer into bedroom windows.
However emergency services, transport operators and aviation regulators are just as concerned that the proliferation of RPAs in the hands of overenthusiastic amateurs could cost lives in the event of collisions or equipment failures.
In particular, the report cites evidence from aviation authorities who argue that while commercial and private aircraft are built, tested and certified to high levels of reliability based on globally recognised standards, cheap hobbyist devices are not built to anywhere near the same quality.
Regulators, like the Civil Aviation Safety Authority (CASA) are not holding back in terms of expressing their concerns.
“The difficulty with the proliferation of these [unmanned aerial systems] … is that they are not built to any standard,” CASA’s Director of Aviation Safety, John McCormick, is quoted in the report as telling the inquiry.
“There is no international standard at this stage. So their ability to maintain altitude, their ability to maintain heading, their ability to suffer equipment failure and then not crash, have not been established.”
Adding weight to those concerns is what now appears to be an inevitable increase in drone-related safety incidents both on the ground and in the air.
One now well-publicised incident involved a drone crashing into a pylon of Sydney Harbour Bridge and landing on the train line below. The report says that the operator of the drone had said that he had assumed the device had landed in the water, however footage posted to the internet from the device’s camera showed “Sydney transport workers retrieving the RPA.”
Another RPA incident involved a night time near miss for a rescue helicopter in Newcastle that was forced to take evasive action after the chopper crew realized airborne lights they had spotted at 1000 feet were not a larger aircraft at some distance away but a smaller object that was much closer.
“CASA regulations forbid recreational RPA users from sending their craft higher than 400 feet or from flying RPAs over populous areas. They also forbid RPA operators from flying them within five kilometres of an aerodrome,” the report said.
Despite the increase in safety and privacy problems, many organisations are urging caution that more stringent regulation of RPA’s should not ground a developing legitimate industry that offers governments and private clients substantial benefits that ranges from spotting bushfires to managing mining stockpiles or weeds.
The Australian Federal Police told the inquiry that it was using RPAs in situations that would ordinarily use a cherry picker to get a view. The unmanned aircraft were advantageous because they were ultimately more transportable.
Lindsay Pears from the Queensland Department of State Development, Industry and Planning told the Committee that there were concerns that recreational and uncertified commercial users could harm a fledgling industry.
“A lot of the professional operators in the industry are really concerned about that… it could totally disrupt the market at an embryonic stage of growth,” Mr Pears is cited as telling the inquiry.
The committee heard that professional RPA operators were keen to access and comply with regulations as they emerged.
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