Military drone strikes, dealing death from above, are a tolerated if-not-accepted part of modern warfare. Flying high above aggressors, unmanned craft like the UK's Reaper fleet can take out a target without jeopardising the lives of the remote pilots controlling them. Consumer drones, made for aerial photography or recreational flight, may not be equipped with Hellfire missiles – but there is still the fear that they may prove deadly in the wrong hands.
Drones are selling like hot cakes. We're flocking to the shops to buy them as toys for the kids or as super-serious-not-a-toy adult hobbies, while retailers are eyeing them up as ways to speed up deliveries. According KPCB, a staggering 4.3 million drones were shipped worldwide last year, with the US making up 35 per cent of this stat and European markets 30 per cent. In just two years, the industry has grown 167 per cent year-on-year, resulting in revenue of $1.7 billion in 2015.
It's a big bucks business, but drones do bring with them some serious safety concerns. Picture this: you’re strolling in the park when all of a sudden, a drone travelling at 40 miles per hour comes out of nowhere and crashes into your head. Yep, that’d really bloody hurt and, potentially, even cause a death.
So what would happen if an off-the-shelf drone actually managed to kill someone, accidentally or otherwise?
(Near) Death From Above
Though the vast majority of drone users are sensible and responsible, the threat by drones when in careless hands is incredibly real. There have already been many times when drones have had near misses with people, and numerous times when they've caused significant injury, too. Last year, in Worcestershire, a toddler lost an eye after being hit by a drone flown by a friend of the family.
The exact details are rather gruesome. Oscar Webb’s eye was sliced in half by the drone’s propeller, all because the operator lost control. Now he’ll need several operations before surgeons can fit him with a prosthetic eye. His doctor told the BBC that while it’s the first drone injury he’s seen, it’s “inevitable” that there’ll be similar incidents in the future.
Image: BBC / Amy Roberts
Drones are also causing headaches directly in the skies. Between April and October 2015, there were 23 instances when drones almost hit passenger jets in British airspace - compared to 12 from July 2014 to July 2014 - the UK Airprox Board (UKAB) claims. With these numbers growing, it seems certain there’s going to be a day when a drone hits a plane. British Airways boss Willie Walsh is calling for a register of UK drone owners to mimic the one already in practice in the US, amid fears that recent near-misses with planes could have caused disastrous crashes. Though there's yet to be a known incident of a drone leading to a plane crash, it's not uncommon for high-flying birds to be sucked into airplane engines, seriously damaging engines. A similar incident with a metal and plastic drone could have far graver consequences for a flight and its passengers.
What Current Law Says
Clearly, keeping drones in check is crucial. With regards to regulation and laws for using them, there are a few basic rules. You’re currently able to buy a drone without signing some form of register, as long as it’s not for commercial reasons, and you can’t fly it within 150 metres of busy areas - such as towns - or near people, vehicles or ships if you aren’t a qualified pilot.
At the same time, the Civil Aviation Authority, which regulates all aviation in the UK, expects that you fly your UAV within line-of-sight of your own two eyes. You can’t exceed 400 feet or 500 metres horizontally, and if you do, you must get permission from the CAA. Going against this could lead to prosecution and a hefty fine.
Above: Drone footage from the music video of John Paul Raptis, which has been condemned due to its irresponsible flight path over London landmarks.
Drone Jail Sentences
Obviously, if you were to harm someone with a drone seriously or fatally, you’re not going to be hit with a large sum to pay. Instead, you’re most likely going to land yourself in jail. Kim Holden, partner at Manchester-based criminal law firm Burton Copeland, expects that the operator of a drone involved in a fatality would be arrested and convicted for involuntary manslaughter if they killed someone. Sentences range from a few months to life imprisonment.
“The maximum sentence for involuntary manslaughter is life imprisonment but sentences are very far ranging. The most common type of involuntary manslaughter which comes before the courts is single punch manslaughter, which have attracted sentences as low as 12 months imprisonment,” she explains.
That said, because no one’s actually been killed by a drone before, such a case would be met with complications. She continues: “Sentence prediction for involuntary manslaughter by a drone would however be difficult as there haven't been any cases of this type in the criminal courts before and so it would be a hard task for a Judge.
“It would no doubt appear towards the lower end of the scale, but it would all be dependant upon the severity of the handling of the drone, the experience of the pilot, their age and culpability and how reasonably foreseeable it was for serious injury or death to occur. But in short prison certainly – length however is very debatable.”
Political Mayhem and Big Payouts
Should a drone kill someone, the case would end up going to the Crown Court, creating havoc for lawmakers and the drone industry. There would be pressure for the government to rush in new laws - or possibly bans - as well as scaremongering on a massive scale. This, in turn, would impact the booming consumer drone industry, as restrictions would likely come into place and people may not want to buy drones anyway.
Holden says: “The decision for such an incident to see the inside of a Crown Court would be extremely politically motivated. If such a case were to come before the criminal courts it would have a negative effect on the booming consumer drone industry.”
Civilians, of course, aren’t the only drone users. Companies also use them for a variety of commercial purposes. E-commerce giant Amazon, for example, has been testing drones to deliver products to customers. But what would be the result if a drone lost control in this type of context and killed someone?
Well, as well as potentially being prosecuted for corporate manslaughter, the company could end up going through a lawsuit and being sued for compensation. Anne Scott, a lawyer specialising in personal injury claims at Ramsdens Solicitors, says: “The personal representative of the deceased can make a claim on behalf of the estate, provided that all of the beneficiaries are in agreement. Any compensation recovered would then be divided up in accordance with the terms of the will or otherwise.”
Consequences for the Consumer Drone Industry
There would also be consequences for the entire drone market, too. Will Higham, a consumer strategist, says that although the majority of consumers believe drones have their uses, they could easily become “put off” in a case of a drone fatality. However, this would only be for a short period of time, he says.
“Drones are Orwellian ‘eye in the sky’, like moving CCTV. They have their uses - medical emergencies, filming, military - and I think people appreciate their use in those contexts. But for private, personal and non-emergency use? Not until someone finds a ‘genuine’ consumer use for them,” he tells us.
“Drone delivery, for instance, is likely to be seen by consumers as a solution looking for a problem. So I believe a fatal drone accident could put people off. Not forever, but enough to slow their mainstream adoption. People may forgive ‘teething problems’ in something they see the long term value of (such as driverless cars) but not for something they distrust, whose purpose is not clear."
Making Drones Safer
Whatever the case, it would be devastating to see a drone kill someone, so it’s important for manufacturers to ensure UAVs have mechanisms in place making them safe. DJI, which is one of the world’s biggest drone manufacturers, builds its drones with geofencing technology to ensure they don’t enter unauthorised areas. Also, the company’s latest consumer drone, the Phantom 4, sports a collision avoidance system.
Adam Lisberg, head of communications at DJI, says: “DJI is the industry leader in creating geofencing - programs built into our drones that prevent inadvertent operation in unauthorized areas. Our newest consumer drone, the Phantom 4, includes a forward-facing collision avoidance system that automatically detects when the drone is too close to an obstacle and will either stop it or maneuver around it.”
Although building drones with safety in mind is important, there are plenty of other ways they can be kept safe. Mark Boyt believes that ensuring drone owners are trained is one of the best solutions. He’s the founder of Drones Safe Register, a database of qualified drone pilots in the UK, who can be hired by the public.
“DSR is a national directory for legal drone pilots available for hire. It’s to provide the UK public a safe platform to hire from,” he says. “No other directory checks insurance and PFAW status. DSR only launched in Nov 2015, and we have hit 1.5 million targeted members of the public and produced a short educational video. Our pilots are legal pros, all working to the CAA air navigation order.”
Despite the benefits they bring, drones remain a topical concern for public health and safety. While more and more laws and strategies are being put in place so that they’re monitored and don’t harm anyone, it’s more than likely that we’re going to see more drone-related injuries over the coming years as their popularity grows. It'll be up to manufacturers, law-makers and pilots alike to make sure those injuries are never allowed to escalate into something more serious, or the drone industry as a whole could take a crash, too.