Drones – opportunity or threat?

Once the purview of the military and spies, ‘unmanned aerial vehicles’ (‘Drones’), are increasingly common.
NEW blc aerial

Just hot air?

A few months ago the giant online retailer Amazon announced its intention to deliver packages within 30 minutes of customers placing an order. Despite widespread incredulity, Amazon backed this up with footage from test flights, and still assures customers in the US that they can expect commercial deliveries some time in 2015.


In February I attended the excellent News: Rewired conference where, amongst other things, I learnt that the term ‘dronalism’ has already entered the vocabulary. If you’ve not heard of it before, ‘dronalism’ refers to journalists using drones to report from situations difficult or dangerous for people. You’ve probably already seen footage but, if not, here are a couple of examples:

Own Drone

If you’re prepared to fork out several hundred quid, you can own your own drone. For less than £300 you can have a drone that can ascend to 100m, record and live-stream high definition footage to your smart phone, and even return home automatically. I’m referring to the AR Drone 2.0 here from Parrot, but there are other manufacturers and options available.


I’m interested in technology and how it can be exploited for good. There are loads of potential benefits, some which are obvious, and others which are yet to be identified. A few of the more obvious public service uses include:

  • Search and rescue
  • Policing – gathering evidence
  • Quickly assessing a potentially dangerous situation before sending people to the scene
  • Low cost ‘eye in the sky’ to monitor traffic congestion and problems like flooding
  • Low cost routine aerial imagery
  • They’re fun!

Drones are getting smaller, cheaper and faster. Some come with programming interfaces, so if you’ve got programming skills you can tailor them to do exactly what you want.


I’m worried that we might be entering a period when the skies fill up with tiny hi-tech drones. This could have all sorts of consequences which I don’t think we’ve thought through – if we’re not careful, this could be the beginning of a nightmare.

Right now you can buy a drone that will fit in the palm of your hand. How long before that reduces to the size of a mosquito? A few concerns that spring to mind include:

  • Privacy – no escape from prying eyes
  • Data protection – peering over your virtual shoulder as you type passwords
  • Personal safety – drones falling out of the sky
  • Danger to each other and other air traffic
  • Noise – individually not too noisy, but that could be said of the car
  • Pollution (think balloon release, but potentially much worse)

BlueLightCamp session pitch?

BlueLightCamp 2014Is it just me? Am I alone in having mixed opinions about drones?

I’d really like to hear what you think. Feel free to comment at the end of this post, or join the discussion in BlueLightCamp’s Google Group, or join us at BlueLightCamp on 10/11th May in Southampton – it’s free to attend and you can register here.

Picture credit

  • BlueLightCamp Logo and hashtag: Matt Buck of Drawnalism

By Mark Braggins

Walking, usually with my two ex-racing greyhounds. Interested in lots of stuff. Work: Business Development and Research at Drawnalism


      1. I think the 100 metre range might make this an interesting toy rather than a useful tool

            1. Haha, same here. I’ve only made half a dozen flights so far, had several crashes and got caught in trees twice! I’ve resolved to read the instructions properly before my next flight.

  1. All joking on Twitter aside, I’ve been exploring the options here, with sports photography in mind. Those who know me will know I do a lot of track and field athletics photography and I was interested in the potential to get new angles on the action, and even video footage, which is not really (or yet) an area I cover.

    My conclusion is that so far as “affordable” models ago (as in affordable to a freelancer like me) the tech is just not there at the moment. Not found an affordable model that could operate within something the relatively modest size of an athletics arena, nor shoot a race longer than about 5 mins in reality, using built in options. Seem to be some that can use a USB stick, which would extend shooting time to long, long after the onboard batteries had run out! After that, big long wait while battery recharges, or more cost for extra batteries.

    Someone did suggest I might be able to reincentivise javelin throwers with it, though! And of course, there were concerns about it crashing on people due to tech/signal issues or pilot error.

    I thought I’d come up with a fairly modest real-world use. I will continue to monitor pace of tech change, but it’s really not there yet!


    1. I haven’t looked at practicalities for specific purposes, Tom, but it makes sense to look at some real-life practicalities as you’ve done here. I’ll do a bit more delving and experimenting as well and will let you now how I get on.

  2. I’ve been looking into this lately and, as a newish multi-rotor pilot, I’ve been amazed by the video quality you can get from a really basic quadcopter, in my case a Hubsan X4, with a removeable battery and microsd card. It doesn’t have all the bells and whistles of GPS and return to home but still could be useful for short aerial coverage of events in reasonable flying conditions. Here’s a video I shot recently. https://www.dropbox.com/s/be6mjlhzbcvu1bp/Quad%201.mp4

    1. Thanks for leaving a comment,Mel, and for sharing your video. That’s really impressive for an inexpensive piece of kit. I’ll have a proper look at Hubsan at the weekend

      1. If you’re a patient sort of a guy I can recommend a company called Banggood (www.banggood.com). They’ve got great prices but the basic free shipping takes weeks :-(. It’s worth bearing in mind that many of the FPV drones operate on radio rather than WiFi so the range is way over 100m. I can also recommend Flyin Ryan (http://www.youtube.com/user/theimacman) who also posts over on http://www.rcgroups.com. He was really helpful in ansering my foolish noobie questions and also for extra geekk kudos works at Wolfram Alpha!

        1. I just bought an X4 with camera. Now will be waiting eagerly for the postman every day for the next 3 months!

  3. Really interesting! So much potential and so much danger.

    I’ve been toying with using this idea to capture footage of events in order to research things like crowd density, attendance figures, attractiveness of various areas etc. Very useful for busy events where a ground eye view can’t see far and count crowds with clickers!

    What about going one further and using facial analysis for emotional measurements? (are people enjoying it?). Could be useful, not too invasive.

    What about merging that with other photographs and facial databases to identify who attended? Oh wait that might be too far :D. But it’s easy to get carried away into this kind of outrageous territory!

    Lot’s of legal aspects too – CAA guidelines have all sorts of regulations about distance from buildings, the need for a permit for surveillance work and even pilot qualifications! And now prosecutions!: http://www.theguardian.com/world/2014/apr/02/uk-first-drone-conviction

    Followed link from BlueLightCamp to this – hope the event goes well. Definitely do a session on this!! ;oD

    1. Yeah Jono the current CAA rules specifically prohibit filming:

      a) over or within 150 metres of any congested area;

      b) over or within 150 metres of an organised open-air assembly of more than 1,000 persons;

      c) within 50 metres of any vessel, vehicle or structure which is not under the control of the person in charge of the aircraft; or

      d) subject to paragraphs (3) and (4), within 50 metres of any person

      without the specific permission of the CAA although there is some talk of it being OK if you have ‘control’ of those persons in the model aircraft regs.

      1. That’s useful Mel – it really is an unknown territory for our team so all bits of guidance and legal requirements help!

        I’ve decided it’s an idea worth pursuing though so have drafted a brief this week to see if we can do it at one of the local festivals in July. Should be interesting!

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