Because of this, drones are smaller, cheaper and easier to operate than manned aircrafts and helicopters. The rapid development of drone technology is creating a multitude of possibilities, but also many challenges.
What is a drone?
The word “drone” is the most prolific term used to describe unmanned aircrafts. They are distinguished by their ability to fly without any pilot on board. Computer-assisted and semi-autonomous flight ability is a defining characteristic of drone technology.
Their size varies between anything from that of an airliner to an insect. They can be equipped with a range of different types of cameras and sensors. The civilian use of drones is increasing rapidly, and it is also the fastest growing market segment of the aircraft-industry.
Civilian use of drones
Drones also go by the terms UAV (Unmanned Aerial Vehicle), UAS (Unmanned Aircraft System) and RPAS (Remotely Piloted Aircraft System). These terms highlight that the unmanned aircraft is only one part of a larger system, where operators, control systems and the sensors the drone is carrying are as essential as the drone itself.
Drones are first and foremost airborne platforms for data-gathering. Earth observation and remote sensing related to climate research are among the many different areas of use of drone technology. Commercial purposes include aerial photography, agriculture, forestry, and mineral and petroleum exploration.
Because they provide live aerial images and data, their use is also rapidly expanding in other sectors, such as security and disaster prevention in order to perform aerial recognition of areas stricken by floods, landslides or earthquakes. They are also an ideal tool for the police and for search and rescue operations.
A drone revolution?
Having drones observing and collecting data is easier, faster and cheaper than using planes and helicopters. Dispensed of a crew, the costs of flying are significantly reduced, and they can also be used in missions where the risks to human life and safety are deemed too high. For example, in the aftermath of the Fukushima-incident, drones were used to assess the damage and radiation hazard at the plant. In the High North, drones may be used for search and rescue operations in the Arctic and in remote seas. Also, without the requirements imposed by human needs, the design of drones is much more flexible. Larger drones therefore have the capacity to fly continuously for days, while smaller ones can operate at ground level, indoors and in other areas inaccessible to manned aircrafts. Drones thereby reduce both the financial and the technological resources required to operate in the air, and have opened the airspace to new users and purposes.
Before the generalized use of drones for commercial purposes is fully authorized, ensuring that they do not pose a threat to their (mostly urban) environment remains a priority. Their availability to regular consumers is increasing at a record pace, challenging existing aviation regulations. One essential requirement is that the unmanned aircrafts have to “see and be seen” in order to avoid causing accidents.
The use of drones, then, is not regulated by any single, fixed set of rules. The European Aviation Security Agency intends to develop such regulations for drones weighing over 150 kilos by 2018. The Norwegian Civil Aviation Authority has developed temporary guidelines pending permanent regulations for drones weighing less than 150 kilos.
According to these guidelines, an operating-license is required for all non-recreational use. A license to fly over 400 feet and beyond the operators line of sight is only given following extensive and lengthy administrative risk-assessment procedures. This restricts the use of drones and highlights the need for official, fixed set of rules and regulations as a condition for further development and innovation in drone technology.
Surveillance and privacy
Drones lower the threshold for airborne surveillance and data gathering. Is the present legislation well-adapted to govern the increasingly mobile, cheap and less visible use of airborne cameras and sensors?
These issues are currently being discussed in a number of countries. There is an ongoing debate in the USA about how to balance the use of drones by the police with privacy concerns. Access to drone technology by the average consumer may prove, however, to be as significant a challenge, if not greater, to privacy concerns.
Security and Society
The use of drones has made airspace accessible for new groups of consumers and new areas of use. As drones can be remotely controlled across large distances, in many cases it is difficult or impossible to identify its operators. This property makes drone use prone to illegal activities, among which espionage and terrorism. The 22nd July Commission also evoked the possibility of drones being used in new forms of terrorist actions.
Today, all flights using camera equipment must be approved by the Norwegian National Security Authority (NSM). Seeing that drones are already widely available to any consumer in Norway, it is highly likely that this rule is ignored.
A tech race in civilian airspace
The increasing political interest for the economic potential of civilian drones is amplifying the already rapid technological progress in the field. American airspace is to be opened for commercial use of drones by 2015.
In the EU, it is estimated that an official set of rules will be in place by 2016-2018. Countries such as Australia and China are also investing considerably in the development of civilian drone technology. This may be seen as a race to secure shares on the civilian drones market which is expected to grow significantly in the coming years.
In the course of the next decade, it is likely that unmanned systems will be used increasingly for other purposes than data gathering. Package delivery, construction or fully automated search and rescue operations are only some of the many activities where drones can be put to use. While currently most drones are remotely controlled, their autonomy is expected to increase. The technological progress in the development of intelligent systems and the exploitation of efficient sources of energy (for example, solar power) may eventually lead to an interconnected network of drones permanently hovering over Norwegian airspace. At the end of 2012, some 40 Norwegian companies have a license to fly drones, and they operate several thousands of flights per year. Norway has become one of the leading actors in the use and development of drone technology, especially in the maritime sector. If this position is to be maintained, more attention and effort must be dedicated to the development of official rules and regulations guiding the use of drones.