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Regulation of drones in ‘chaos’, alleges robotics expert

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Drones have attracted a “well-deserved” bad reputation as tools for violations of human rights, breaches of privacy and irresponsible and dangerous uses by hobbyists, according to a leading UK robotics expert.

Professor Noel Sharkey said that drone regulations are lacking in the UK, despite the growing risks associated with them due to the ever-increasing number in the skies.

Asked about the state of drone regulation at a news briefing in London, Sharkey said: “Personally, I would say it’s in chaos. It’s somehow caught everybody by surprise - I don’t know how it did that. I was certainly complaining about it in 2007.

“I’m not a futurologist and I never look far in the future, I look at current technology. To me, it didn’t take any kind of deep thinking to realise what was going to happen with this at all.”

However, Sharkey also cautions that, “we mustn’t throw the baby out with the bathwater. It is now clear that the responsible use of this technology could be enormously helpful to humanitarian work and environmental protection.

“When we have natural disasters, starving people in conflict, or emergency need for medicines, drones can come to the rescue”

In a new report on the state of the drone sector in the UK, ‘Drones in the Service of Society’, Sharkey said that while it was difficult to precisely calculate the number of privately operated drones, the number probably ran into the “hundreds of thousands”.

The report warns that drone technology touches on “so much of our society that robust research is needed to maximise the service performed by drones towards the public good”.

The number patrolling the UK skies could soon be set to explode if companies like Amazon are approved to start making deliveries to customers.

A group representing the world’s airlines recently backed a global drone registration system due to the sharp increase in the number of collisions and near-collisions with aircraft in recent years.

Most drones are small devices powerful enough to carry a smartphone into the air, yet still capable of reaching heights of around 500 feet.

Worldwide, sales of drones reached a peak of £9.69bn in 2016.

“The police tell me that whenever they go to a crime scene now, very frequently they find a drone overhead,” said Prof Sharkey. “They’ve no idea who owns it - is it the criminal, is it someone else? - and they haven’t got any means of tracking it.”

New UK laws brought in just last month impose a ban on flying drones above 400 feet and within one kilometre of airport boundaries. 

In addition, drones weighing 250 grams or more will in future have to be registered with the Civil Aviation Authority and drone pilots will be expected to take an online safety test.

The report calls for more comprehensive rules and guidelines to address the safety and privacy issues surrounding drones.

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