Unmanned drones are not the preserve of military adventures abroad. Driven by a burgeoning commercial sector, and with a potential relaxation in flying regulations, increasing numbers of private companies are using them.
From agricultural surveys to mapping pipelines, drones are seen as a cheap and reliable alternative to manned aircraft or helicopters.
One sector playing catch-up is the media with the BBC, among others, looking at the possibility of using drones for news gathering.
Daniel Bennett of the War Studies Department at King’s College, London, said: “You could see them being used for traffic surveillance or covering demonstrations. We are going to see this happening fairly soon – certainly
within the next 12 months.
If you want to get really scary, then the US military is developing insect-type models. Imagine trying to get stories by flying one of those through
The economic case for a drone is obvious when you weigh the cost of hiring a helicopter against £500 for what is basically a flying camera.
Legally, you only need a permit from the Civil Aviation Authority and insurance if you are flying anything weighing less than 20 kilogrammes near buildings or people for the purpose of data acquisition. The corridor between 200 feet and 1,000 feet where they operate is, essentially, a public path by any property.
But as John Moreland, spokesman for the unmanned aerial vehicle industry body, says: “The real question mark is not over the people who comply with the rules but those who don’t. How can you identify them? What kind of data is being collected – and what is it being used for?”
Privacy issues, as with Google maps, have already attracted criticism of the “spies in the sky”.
Mr Bennett said: “At a demonstration you might not have much expectation of privacy; but if you are filming and happen to go past an office window, what then? It’s called ‘collateral intrusion’. If the drones are too small to see, then you don’t even know it is happening.”
Much like the use of smart phones and social media, the potential for drones to gather intelligence quickly and cheaply has been seized on by tech-savvycampaigners.
In America, one man concerned about a polluted river used a drone to survey the route of the water. He traced the problem back to an upstream abattoir. Activists are now trying to catch out big corporations just as some big companies start to keep a watch on the rest of us.