Look out! The Drones are here – and we’re not ready …

New Zealand Police aren’t waiting for major aviation safety and personal privacy issues about domestic spy drones to be solved. TV3 reports they’ve already purchased their first unmanned aerial vehicle. So, watch this space …

It’s been known for months that the police have been studying the use of remotely-controlled surveillance drones.

Last September,  Privacy Commissioner Marie Shroff was warning that “drones have the potential to be seriously intrusive” and calling for debate about the risks, benefits and the need for regulation “before they become a problem”.

Following Shroff’s lead, New Zealand Airline Pilots Association technical director Stu Julian was much blunter. He says UAV’s pose a significant safety risk to the air traffic environment in and around New Zealand airports, and are not ready to take to the skies alongside commercial aircraft. “They are not match ready,” says Julian.

Then the story dropped off the news radar. After all, a study is only a study. But, just as the media shutters were being run down for Christmas, TV3 News broke the silence and New Zealand Police  confirmed they had used UAV’s twice in recent operations and had purchased their first drone – probably a New Zealand-built AreoHawk, a UAV already in service with the New Zealand Defence Force.

This time, Police Association advocate Greg O’Connor moved quickly to pre-empt critics of the stealthy police adoption of UAVs. “Innocent members of the public have nothing to fear,” he told TV3.”It’s smarter, it’s cheaper, it’s more efficient.”  But, hold on there, Quickdraw!  Let’s run a fact-check on those claims.

The U.S. Federal Aviation Administration is far more cautious about UAVs. It’s been reviewing drone use by Customs and Border Protection authorities along the southern border of the United States over the period 2006-2010. In testimony to a House of Representatives sub-committee, FAA representatives provided data indicating that the UAV accident rate was more than seven times higher than the rate for general aviation, and 353 times higher than the rate for commercial aviation. The FAA admits the Customs and Border Protection UAV flight hours over the four monitored years are comparatively low – but it wants more data before pressing ahead with full integration of drones into its National Airspace System.

Furthermore, police experience with domestic drones in the United Kingdom can hardly be called a screaming success . The Merseyside Police experiment with its one and only UAV saw the tiny quad-copter used in just one (successful) operational deployment, before it crashed into a river during a training exercise. They said they would not replace the $26,000 drone “due to certain technical and operational issues, including staff training costs and the inability to use the UAV in all weather conditions”. Far from being discouraged by the unsuccessful Merseyside experience, the British government has now given the police the green light to put military-style heavyweight drones into domestic service. That shows how easily mission creep becomes quantum leap.

Last September, after Shroff and Julian started expressing concerns here about the possible introduction of drones into domestic  policing, the official New Zealand Police line was that they were “very aware” of potential privacy issues and they would work through them as part of their evaluation. “As with any police activity, the use of UAV’s would always have to be fully in accordance with the law,” said national crime manager Detective Superintendent Rod Drew. 

Now, we’re told the first police drone has been purchased -  but there’s no sign that the privacy or safety issues identified months ago have been addressed. Drones have been pressed into domestic police operations before we’ve even seen the start of a debate on the revised version of the privacy laws the Government has been promising and before we see how the High Court addresses some highly contentious official surveillance and privacy issues that have arisen in the Kim Dotcom case. On top of that, questions are now being asked in aviation circles about the authority of the Director of Civil Aviation to apply anything more than model aircraft safety disciplines over domestic surveillance drones.

Currently, the CAA claims that, under Part 19 of civil aviation rules, an authorization from the Director is needed to fly what it calls a “pilotless aircraft” and that Part 19 also authorises the Director to impose any conditions on its operator felt necessary in the interests of safety.

Unfortunately for the CAA, Part 19 also defines a pilotless aircraft as “an aircraft, other than a balloon or kite, designed to fly unmanned with a gross mass greater than 25kg.” 

A fully-laden, surveillance-equipped  AeroHawk UAV weighs just over 4kg.  Another video-equipped  UAV in local use – the Droidworx SkyJib Octocopter – weighs about 3kg. And the smallest spy-drone – the tiny video-carrying AeroVironment Nano Hummingbird – can fly into your house through an open window, hover and snoop around for eight minutes or so, and weighs just 19 grammes.  None of these  UAVs come close to the qualifying weight for regulation as a pilotless aircraft.

As I read the CAA rules for model aircraft, you can’t fly a radio-controlled model aircraft over 400 feet  above ground level, or within 4 kilometres of an aerodrome, or out of sight of the operator  – and you only need an authorization from a model aircraft association approved by the Director if your “model” has a gross mass of between 15kg and 25kg. Oh, and I can’t see anything at all in the CAA rules to protect the privacy of anyone on, or under, your flight path.

Please correct me, if I’m wrong, but I sense more scope for hazardous, low-level, remote controlled flights over urban New Zealand, as well as safety, surveillance and privacy loopholes here that are bigger than barn-doors. My first Official Information Act requests for 2013 are in the mail.