One estimate had 700,000 new drones being bought over the Christmas holidays. Strict Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) rules say everyone must register their drone, which cannot weigh more than 55lb or be flown above 400ft or within five miles of airports. Railway giant BNSF is piloting a scheme to use drones to inspect tracks, bridges and other infrastructure. Amazon is working on Prime Air, to deliver “in 30 minutes or less”.
Civil Aviation Authority permission is needed to use drones commercially. There are more than 600 permissions, in areas such as photography and surveying, says a House of Lords’ EU Select Committee report. But “in future they could be used to carry out many more tasks, such as search and rescue, deliveries and construction repair work.” The Peers want greater regulation in the EU, with pilots assessed for competence and drones for their ability to avoid obstacles. Four near-misses with planes were recently reported at UK airports.
Experts are looking into using drones to chase away animals attacking farm crops, to transport emergency medical supplies to remote areas, to check on rare wildlife and plants on uninhabited islands, and to help farmers monitor soil conditions more efficiently. In Tokyo, police plan to use their own drones to capture illegal flying objects with nets.
Drones are treated as aircraft. Forest owners use them to study trees and scientists to explore inaccessible areas. Deutsche Bahn, Europe’s largest railway operator, uses them to tackle graffiti sprayers and an annual cleaning bill of €7.6m. Companies using commercial drones up to 5kg must apply for a flight permit from the state authority, with proof of insurance, training and experience. Unmanned drones over 25kg are forbidden to fly.
A Hermes 9000 drone will be used at the Olympics in Rio. For the 2014 World Cup, it had 17 cameras tracking activity in a 100 sq km area. Its high-resolution sensors can identify licence plates and even faces at 30,000 feet. Drones are used to patrol Brazil’s borders – all 10,500 miles of them – and in the past to monitor the Amazon rainforest and target crimes such as illegal logging.
A licence is needed to fly an aircraft weighing more than 7kg or flying higher than 120m. Drones are used in the mapping, filming and agricultural industries, but there’s a big shortage of pilots. Forty-two drone schools now offer intensive two-week courses. Start-up Ehang has unveiled the first passenger drone, which can carry one person and a small backpack for 20 minutes. It is controlled via a tablet, used to set the flight path before take-off, and designed to fit, propellers folded, in a single parking spot.
Flying a drone has been banned since October 2014, though not sales through e-tailers or toy stores, says the Indian Express. Regulations are being drafted for commercial use.
Drone laws include keeping them at least 30m away from people, not operating them above large gatherings, or within 5km of airports. Commercial operators can use lightweight drones (under 2kg) without a licence. Sydney’s Daily Telegraph reports that officers in the western suburbs have been followed home from work and watched by drones as they fight organised crime and the threat of extremism.
Drones must not be flown in public spaces without permission and a safety plan. A mapping company is using drones to map and audit kiwi fruit orchards and to monitor a disease that affects the fruit. Sheep have proved hazardous: YouTube user Buddhanz1 was using a drone to look for a newborn lamb but an angry ram knocked it out of the air.
An early commercial licenser, France had 1,250 registered businesses by last March. Energy companies, farmers and others use drones to monitor leaking river levees and weeds on railways. Operators must pass a theory test and have an aptitude for drone flying. For longer flights, a pilot’s licence, 100 hours of flying training and 20 with drones are required.