Your Favorite Holiday Gift Is a Danger to the Public

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- The chaos at Britain’s second-biggest airport, which left thousands of passengers stranded at the start of the holiday season getaway, was a case of a disruptive technology at work: Flights had to be halted after drones were found flying in the vicinity of London Gatwick. There’s a strong case for regulating them more strictly, and for keeping them out of hobbyists’ hands.

A collision between a drone and a passenger airliner hasn’t yet happened — though suspicions arose last week after an incident in Tijuana, Mexico. Thankfully, the plane involved was able to land normally.

The possibility has been modeled, however, and the consequences would be devastating: Flying objects can do even more damage than birds, and wildlife strikes accounted for 287 human fatalities between 1988 and 2017.

On the other hand, drones can be used to prevent wildlife strikes by keeping birds away from airports. The U.S. Federal Aviation Administration recently allowed drone businesses to fly over airports for benign purposes like this. 

In other words, the risk isn’t so much in letting drones fly near airports, but in letting them do so without proper coordination with airport operators.

The U.K. already has rules for the use of unmanned aircraft: They can’t be flown higher than 400 feet or within 1 kilometer (0.6 miles) of an airfield without permission. They are also banned from the air corridors the royal family use for their helicopter flights.

These restrictions, though, are difficult to enforce, as Thursday’s incident at Gatwick showed. Police can’t shoot the things out of the air because stray bullets can cause damage, and it takes time to figure out who is controlling the drones.

Legislation introduced this year will require owners of unmanned aircraft weighing 250 grams (9 ounces) or more to register with the U.K.’s Civil Aviation Authority and take an online safety test. But these measures won’t prevent the malicious or irresponsible use of these aircraft; if one ever crashed into an airliner, it would be irrelevant whether its owner had been registered and tested.

There are good reasons to allow the professional use of drones: They offer a cheaper way for companies to deliver goods, can be used in industrial and border inspections, and allow the military to save soldiers’ lives.

But it’s hard to see why selling drones to hobbyists for as little as $22 is a good idea. They can cause freak accidents, and while people can have fun with the machines, they also gain the sinister ability to attack others, or invade their privacy, from the air.

According to technology market research firm Gartner, some 2.8 million personal drones were shipped worldwide in 2017, compared with just 174,100 commercial ones. Though in dollar terms the difference isn’t as striking, the hobby drone industry is still bigger than its commercial civilian counterpart (though military drone sales dwarf them both). Selling these dangerous toys to anyone who wants them and can pass an online test makes no sense.

As much I would like to defend everybody’s freedom to buy stuff and play with it, unmanned aircraft aren’t meant to be a consumer technology. Their use, even for commercial purposes, should be tightly controlled because they’re so easy to weaponize. The millions of unmanned aircraft already in private hands are a menace, and the passengers stranded at Gatwick on Thursday are a case in point.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Leonid Bershidsky is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering European politics and business. He was the founding editor of the Russian business daily Vedomosti and founded the opinion website Slon.ru.

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