Drones: Devices for aid or war?

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Despite hobbyists and professional operators promoting drones for recreational and practical use – there are urgent calls for action to ensure drones remain in the right hands

The DJI Mavic Pro is a powerful pocket-sized drone which captures stunning footage on it’s 4K resolution camera. Photograph: Phoebe Jobling

It’s 2025 and drones are an ordinary sight in the sky. Military-style drones have replaced police helicopters, Amazon are delivering all of their products through Prime Air and we can receive emergency medical aid via drones. But consequently, we’re reading countless reports of hobbyists, prisoners and terrorists exploiting their use; using drones to carry explosives, weapons, drugs and even deliberately causing collisions with aircrafts.

Last year in the UK, the number of reported drone incidents increased drastically to 81 – up from just 29 in 2015. Drone operators fear it’s only a matter of time before there’s a serious incident causing death by a drone.

With the juxtaposition between drones used for practical and illegal use; are drones now an obvious weapon or should they still be considered a useful device?

Drone technology is moving at a very fast pace both in the consumer and professional market, and there is huge potential across a variety of industries. Drones are most commonly used today by hobbyists and commercial operators to gather high-quality aerial footage.

“Drones are expected to become a fixture in the skies in the coming years”

Professional photographer, Steve Samosa, uses drones to capture photography for events and corporate marketing.

“Until recently, drones have been associated with warfare. They still are, but their use is now going beyond conflict zones to the point they could be landing on your doorstep in a few years’ time,” said Steve.

“Amazon for example say its commercial delivery by drones could be operational in the next two years. Drones are expected to become a fixture in the skies in the coming years.”

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Drones are now being trialled by; farmers to assess crops, architects for site analysis, Amazon for product delivery, transportation of aid to disadvantaged countries and police and rescue teams in search for missing people.

Founder of Drones on Demand, Matthew Greaves, discovered the idea for his company around seven years ago, whilst out with his local search and rescue team.

“I was on a search looking for an elderly gentleman that had gone missing from home, he had Alzheimer’s and had wandered off. We had police helicopter support but they eventually got re-tasked onto something else. I remember thinking ‘I wonder if we could use one of those drones for search and rescue; if we put a camera on it, we could use it to look for missing people’,” said Matthew.

In 2017, Matthew began supplying drones for mapping, surveying and inspection purposes. He is currently working on the Flying High Challenge, a project which explores the future of drones in UK cities. It includes five scenarios for how drone technology will be used to aid transportation, traffic incidents and emergency services.

“We’d fly the drones into situations where it would be too dangerous for a person to go,” said Matthew. “Drones could be used in large scale disasters to make firefighters jobs safer and quicker. If there’s a rapidly changing fire ground, we can attach radar sensors to the drone to produce a model to see what is going on on the ground. We’re also looking at attaching sensors which can tell what gases are being released and in what density.”

Another part of the Flying High Challenge looks at drones moving medical samples between hospitals across London.

“Some of these scenarios are particularly near term as most of the drone technology already exists today, so there’s no reason why they can’t start happening now”

“There’s currently a fleet of vans that are driving around London shifting samples from one hospital to another. Travelling a distance of 2km takes forty minutes in a van but by drone, this would take three to five minutes depending on the flight path,” said Matthew.

“We’re also looking at having an airport for drones to be able to dispatch them to incidents on the motorway, within three minutes of the report coming in. If we can get the drone overhead quickly, emergency services could get real-time feedback of what’s going on so they can correctly dispatch the right resources and plan the optimal route to the incident.”

Drones would also be used to release a defibrillator to the scene of an incident, to deliver emergency drugs or medical equipment.

“Some of these scenarios are particularly near term as most of the drone technology already exists today, so there’s no reason why they can’t start happening now.”

On the contrary, drones you can buy in any high-street shop are being used to disrupt airports, smuggle contraband into prisons and are weaponised on the battlefield. In the worst case scenario, it’s only a matter of time before terrorists use a drone to fly explosives into a venue in the UK.

“All technology can be exploited for use other than what the intended application was for. We have all seen in the news, criminals using drones to smuggle contraband into prisons,” said Steve. “Consumer drones are very small if you compare them to military drones but even these small platforms can be converted for some form of hostile threat.”

Due to the rising number of drone incidents, Founder and CEO of Drone Defence, Richard Gill, set up his company to protect people and organisations from illegal drone use.

“I wasn’t the only person interested in commercial drones; reckless users, criminals and terrorists also saw their potential”

Richard’s interest in drones began whilst in the Army in Afghanistan as he witnessed drones being used in a practical way.

“I saw how drones of all sizes were being used to gather live saving, mission critical information for our troops and saw that this ability would be equally as valuable in the commercial world,” he said. “I wasn’t the only person interested in commercial drones; reckless users, criminals and terrorists also saw their potential.”

National Aviation Authorities all over the world are reporting an increasing number of ‘near-misses’ between drones and aircrafts. In 2017, there were records of 92 close collisions in the UK, according to the UK Airprox Board. 

“Drones are being used recklessly near airports resulting in several near air collisions.  As more drones take to the skies, the likelihood of the mid-air collision increases,” said Richard.

Drone Defence have introduced various countermeasures to protect events, people and organisations from the harmful use of drones.

To prevent collisions with aircrafts, the Drone Defence detection system offers real-time awareness with radar sensors, cameras and acoustics to aid airports.

“For temporary protection, we provide a managed drone service named Drone Guardians, who have been deployed to protect weddings, sporting events and open-air festivals,” said Richard.

Drone Defence also provide a SkyFence system which produces an electronic barrier around secure areas that most drones cannot penetrate through. In a world’s first, SkyFence is protecting Guernsey Prison from drones delivering contraband such as mobile phones, drugs and guns to inmates.

Richard explained that when approached by a drone, the defence system disrupts the control network between the flyer and the device. The drone automatically activates ‘return to home mode’ and will be forced to return to its operator.

In the UK, drone users are regulated by the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) who set guidelines to insure operators fly their drones safely and legally, under the Drone Code. If you are flying a drone commercially, you must have a Permission for Commercial Operation (PfCO). To obtain your PfCO, you must pass exams which test your knowledge of how, when and where you should operate your drone and how to fly it safely.

“It’s like driving a car, if you want to go and do 95mph on a motorway, there’s nothing stopping you – it’s dangerous and you may eventually get caught, but then you’ll pay the price for it”

“We’re quite fortunate in the UK to have the regulations that we have in place for drones. The planned legislation changes which are due to come in around June or July this year will lean towards limiting negative drone use,” said Matthew.

The new regulations will provide police with powers to seize and ground drones which may have been used in criminal or illegal activity.

“Hobbyists are probably the most cause for concern because they’re not regulated at the moment. These people have no knowledge apart from they may have done a bit of research on the internet about where they can fly their drone,” said Matthew.

“It’s like driving a car, if you want to go and do 95mph on a motorway, there’s nothing stopping you – it’s dangerous and you may eventually get caught, but then you’ll pay the price for it.

“The legislation that is coming in later this year will make it mandatory for anyone who buys a drone to register it and sit a knowledge test. However, there’s still nothing in place to stop anybody from purchasing a drone, but i’m not sure there should be.”

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