Drones – the word alone can elicit sharp responses: "I hate them, cut it out." Haven't all of us heard something similar from an acquaintance at some point? And to be honest, it's not exactly relaxing when you see one of them dancing around you, the red light on its camera blinking, and making noises like a swarm of hornets.
It's reminiscent of "Blue Thunder", the 1983 action film with the great Roy Scheider playing the leading... no, really playing the best supporting role. The leading role, after all, was a black helicopter, loaded with sensors and cameras, that made it possible to spy on nearly everything and everyone. And today there's not just one of them; there's more than a million in Germany alone. Maybe I'll buy one myself someday. What a world!
We will have to get used to unmanned aircraft. There are many beneficial use cases, after all. The State of Schleswig-Holstein, for example, has been testing drones with thermal imaging for over a year, to rescue fawns. Drones deliver packages and units of blood and are used to maintain difficult-to-reach equipment. They can provide a quick air situation picture of major fires – which can save lives among the rescue services. And they might even be the long-desired answer to urban gridlock.
But where there is light, there is also shadow: incidents with unmanned aircraft are increasing. In 2016, an Airbus only narrowly avoided a collision with a drone in Munich; in the same year, Scotland Yard confirmed a collision between a drone and a passenger jet at London Heathrow. And these aren't isolated cases, either: DFS, the German air control organization, registered fourteen conflicts with civil aviation in 2015 and 64 in 2016. Based on the increasing figures in the first half of 2017, DFS expects a new record this year. So it's not a question of whether a major accident will occur, but when. How many near misses can we still afford?
The most prominent almost-victim is Germany's Chancellor. At a CDU election rally in Dresden in 2013, a nearly 40-centimeter large drone crashed just a few meters away from Angela Merkel. Standing next to her were Defense Minister Thomas de Maizière and Stanislaw Tillich, Premier of Saxony. Witnesses reported later, "The chancellor was cool with it." And "You could see in her face: well, how will my bodyguards deal with this?" Probably not as calmly as the chancellor, because the unexpected threat apparently took them completely by surprise.
The public has also been alarmed by repeated uses of commercial drones for military purposes. France recently confirmed an attack in Iraq, by an ISIS drone that was equipped with an explosive device. Two Kurdish Peshmerga fighters were killed and two French Special Forces soldiers were wounded, according to media reports. Civilian drones can now carry loads of up to 15 kilos, making them effective weapons delivery systems. The probability of such attack scenarios is considered low among security experts, however.
Yet drones also raise worries other than as potential attack tools. Many companies aside from airports also see risks: carmakers fear paparazzi photos of their new prototypes on test tracks, for example; energy utilities fear sabotage; prisons fear smuggling of weapons and drugs; event organizers and stadium operators fear potential injury to their guests, and bodyguards fear drone-transported banners with critical messages or even worse.
All this makes it high time for drone detection systems, like the one Deutsche Telekom presented on Deutsche Flugsicherung's campus on "Drone Detection Day". And it's also high time for mandatory drone registration. When drone pilots commit criminal offenses – whether inadvertently or intentionally – it must be possible to get to them. The government has already taken a first step in this direction with its new rules governing drones. The localization of drones is still unclear, however. Deutsche Telekom and Deutsche Flugsicherung have teamed up to research various options, using the existing cellular networks.
Around a year ago, Jennifer Youngman, a pensioner in Virginia, shot down a drone with her shotgun. After church, she was relaxing on her porch, cleaning her guns, when she heard a "buzzzzzz" – as she put it – from a large flying object that trespassed on her "airspace". Her neighbor is actor Robert Duvall, who is a frequent target of unwanted paparazzi attention. Youngman is fond of her neighbor, so she pulled the trigger and blew the drone to bits. Is self-defense needed in the airspace above our own properties? Get them out of the sky? In an emergency, certainly. But shotguns aren't the solution.