We need a drone register to ensure privacy and safety – air traffic expert

Requiring drones to identify and authorise themselves before they can fly, which could be achieved by fitting them with SIM cards, could help to protect people’s privacy by providing an effective way to register both users and machines, according to air traffic management expert Robin Garrity.

He has been working on the U-space plan, which sets out a vision for how drones can be integrated into airspace, particularly in urban environments. It is part of work being conducted by the SESAR Joint Undertaking, a public-private partnership that coordinates EU research activities in air traffic management.

It is likely that we’ll be seeing more and more drones in our skies, particularly in cities. What do you see as the main benefits of this?

‘Transport of medical supplies, for example. In the press, there are examples of patients who have died because an organ that they were waiting for was stuck in traffic, or something similar. There was a story in Belgium about this. That’s a tragedy that could be averted by the use of drones, where an organ is attached to a drone and can be flown to its destination directly. It’s quick, it’s simple, and it would not be subject to the problems of traffic.

‘The police authorities and fire departments could use drones at accident and crime scenes to collect evidence, or to help manage the incident. Drones could also be used by air accident investigators to help them to oversee a site, or even to try to recreate the final moments of a flight before a crash.

‘An element of this, which is increasing in importance, is urban air mobility (UAM). UAM is a flying taxi, if you like. Some of the vehicle prototypes are already flying – the idea is that you call your taxi and a drone arrives, you step in and off it goes.

‘There is also a growing demand for last-mile package deliveries, which could both speed up delivery of important packages and reduce the number of trucks on the road.’

With all these benefits, what are some of the challenges drones bring?

‘There is a need to maintain privacy as a fundamental principle of U-space servicesThose are easy words to say, but the problem comes in implementation. On one end of the scale, you could say people live in cities, therefore don’t fly small drones over cities. That would solve the privacy issue but, of course, then you would kill the market and that would be counterproductive.

‘It’s very difficult sometimes to identify what is an authorised mission and what’s an unauthorised mission. For example, somebody could abuse privacy by flying a drone up the outside of an apartment building to peek into somebody’s window and take pictures – but the same drone could fly up to the top of the same apartment building to inspect a damaged roof or to check if drains are blocked, which would be a very good use of a drone.’

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