Who owns the space above your garden?
There have been several lawsuits against hobbyist drone flyers, including a recent one in France where an 18-year-old boy from Nancy filmed a video of his hometown using a GoPro camera mounted onto a small drone.
Nans Thomas was eventually fined 400 Euros for violating the DGAC’s sky rules (Direction Générale de l’Aviation Civile) and endangering the lives of others, a fairly light sentence if you consider the maximal sentence could have been one year of imprisonment and a 15,000 Euros fine (violating flying safety rules bear a maximal fine of 75,000 euros but this charge was not taken into account).
In the USA, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) tried to fine an aerial photographer for “reckless flying”, but the court found that the FAA had no authority over small unmanned aircraft when it imposed the first-ever such fine on a drone operator. In fact the FAA has yet to come with dedicated rules for lightweight drones (under 25 kilograms). But in both cases, the general rules that would apply are that recreational drones should stay away from populated areas.
So how are these lawsuits affecting the hobbyist market and what sort of new recommendations Drone manufacturers will put forward to avoid a consumer backlash?
The first promotional AR. Drone Youtube videos posted by French manufacturer Parrot were showing a quadcopter drone remotely piloted via a tablet, hovering over the Parisian cityscape. That makes for an attractive proposition, but wasn’t it misleading? We asked Levy.
Parrot’s Vice President of Corporate Business Development, Yannick Levy.
“The greatest impact that the Nancy case had for the drone industry was a clarification of French law with regards to drones, with numerous media trying to figure out and explain in simple terms what the DGAC regulations meant” said Levy.
“In fact, in its 2012 update of the sky regulations, the DGAC had already anticipated the use of drones for commercial activities, but it was not meant to affect the consumer and hobbyist market when the photos and videos are solely recorded for private purposes”, Levy continued.
Some media interpreted the guidelines roughly as: you can’t fly over 50m high or further than 100m away from the remote control without any authorisation, and never over a populated area.
But only two weeks ago, the DGCA published a new note to clarify the distinction it makes between commercial and hobbyist activities. Hobbyists are now allowed to fly their drones (under 25kg) below the 150m altitude limit, but never over populated areas, neither near airport routes or other specific flying zones as described in aeronautical charts.
In effect, this restricts the use of these consumer drones in the confined space of your private home or garden, or in remote places. It also implies that users should be made aware of their local aeronautical charts.
“This is why our latest promotional videos only feature groups of friends in wide natural landscapes rather than in a city”, emphasized Levy, putting forward Parrot’s latest consumer drone announcement, the Bebob featuring a HD video camera and a 300m range, extensible to 2km using the company’s Skycontroller pack.
Parrot’s soon to be launched Bebop drone, features HD resolution and a 300m range, extensible to 2km using the company’s Skycontroller pack (compatible with Oculus Rift for a first-person view flight immersion).
“We are also encouraging users to consult the local regulations that apply, and that’s why the DGCA is also looking at how to communicate better on the topic”.
The notion of “putting the lives of others at risk” is not a specificity of flying drones and didn’t require any particular amendments in French law.
As for the embarked camera, the issue is whether you use the recorded media for commercial purpose or not, with consent or not from the people being filmed.
The European Commission issued a statement last month saying it aims to set tough new standards to regulate the operations of civil drones, covering safety, security, privacy, data protection, insurance and liability.
In this statement, Vice-President Siim Kallas, Commissioner for mobility and transport, said: "Civil drones can check for damage on road and rail bridges, monitor natural disasters such as flooding and spray crops with pinpoint accuracy. They come in all shapes and sizes. In the future they may even deliver books from your favourite online retailer. But many people, including myself, have concerns about the safety, security and privacy issues relating to these devices."
So, clearly video intrusion is an issue, but it will mostly be considered from a commercial perspective: how will you be allowed or not to commercialize the acquired data, especially as video analytics are increasingly powerful and can extract more data from plain video footage?
On the privacy issue, the European Commission is likely to apply the same rules that already exist for non-airborne cameras. But what if you fly over your garden to have a snapshot of your home?
Would it be considered as peeking over your neighbour’s fence and would you be putting your neighbour’s cat at risk? By the way, would law-enforcement drones be more reliable?
From his discussions with the DGAC, Levy assumes that a little bit of common sense will be necessary to avoid being penalized. “It really depends on your intentions, and the DGAC is not staffed for, nor aiming to interfere with all cases”, he said, noting that in the US, the lack of clear regulations doesn’t stop vendors of Parrot’s drones, lawyers will just figure it out in court.
But among the four drone flying scenarios envisaged by the DGAC for commercial operations, the most restrictive one for out-of-sight operation calls for specific fail-safe mechanisms and crash-safe devices such as parachutes, altitude sensors and more rugged communications including real-time video feedback.
For all commercial activities though, the drone pilot ought to have at least a pilot license for flying ultra-light airplanes or gliders and should prove his/her ability to fly the device reliably in order to be granted a flying permission.
In France, the DGAC recognizes that the current ULM (ultra-light motorized) pilot license requirement is an overkill for most light drones. It is looking at simplifying the delivery of flying permits and drone pilot licenses and in the coming months, it should come up with new amendments, easing up the application process.
It is in discussion with large infrastructure providers such as SNCF (French national railways) and EDF (French utility provider) who are considering the use of drones to remotely monitor their infrastructures. This will certainly help define a new framework for companies to do business.
“In terms of reliability, there should also be a clear distinction made between manual operation and GPS-coordinates controlled drones”, insisted Levy.
“We have just released the Parrot AR.Drone 2.0 GPS Edition that comes with a GPS flight recorder module”. The drone’s flight can not only be displayed in 3D with accurate GPS localization, but it can also be programmed for a set path of GPS coordinates to fly automatically.
A return “button” will guide the drone back to its original take-off site. “Such a flight is inherently more reliable and stable than when the drone is controlled manually” argued Levy.
GPS-controlled flights are the norm for complex topographic surveys. Parrot’s sister company, senseFly Ltd was acquired by the group in 2012, it precisely addresses this commercial market with its eBee variants and professional photogrammetry software. The 3D mapping results are rather stunning.
Are Parrot and their competitors lobbying in Brussels for a new legal framework to take a particular direction?
“We are present at the meetings when Drones are on the agenda” told us Levy, “but merely as observers”. Levy reminded us that the new harmonization directives would mostly address heavy commercial drones, and that very light hobbyist drones would still be subject to country-specific laws.
In the last quarter of 2013, the company’s drone business unit generated 13,8M€ in revenue, a 23% share of its global sales largely driven by the consumer market.
Parrot is also investing in French startup Delair-Tech – www.delair-tech.com who offers mapping services and drones capable of autonomous flight beyond line of sight in a 230km radius.
These are qualified for the DGAC’s S4 flight scenario and could typically be used for infrastructure surveillance, crop mapping or environment monitoring. Levy sees the drone activity as pivotal for Parrot’s future and potentially the fastest growing one.
Once they’ll be buzzing around, how will you make the distinction between an “authorized” drone from a law-enforcement agency or a declared commercial activity and criminal trespassing over your property or the city’s landmarks?
“As for being able to recognize “legitimate” law-enforcement drones from video streaming privacy scavengers, only the future will tell if particular procedures and identification marks will be adopted” commented Levy.
Although you are not supposed to take the law into your own hands, there will certainly be cases of trespassing drones being shot down (a slingshot or a stick will do), and such cases could make the legal framework evolve in favour of more privacy protection.
But the normal legal route would be to file a complaint and then ask for an inquiry to be made so as to identify the drone and the compromising flight path.
That could prove difficult, unless it is made compulsory for all drones to register a unique identification number and log their GPS data to a centralized cloud database.
Again, only the future will tell how the exploding number of drone activities will be supervised and how much space they’ll own over your head.