We Asked Drone Enthusiasts To Defend Their Flying Death Machines

Are they the future, or are they just an air disaster waiting to happen?

|
27 April 2016, 4:10pm

Flying Micro Drones with virtual reality headset, photo by Ethan Kerswell

It's weird, isn't it. Here we were thinking that nuclear war or cyber terrorism or hyper-resistant ebola was going to herald the end of civilisation when it turns out all we should really have been worried about are little remote control cars that fly. In the past few years, drones have ushered in a new era of random killings as well as massively undermining privacy.

In the UK, the drone situation is becoming more acute by the day. Recently a British Airways plane appeared to hit a drone during its descent into Heathrow. There have been similar incidents reported at City Airport, Gatwick, Stansted and Manchester over recent years.

There are now increasing calls to ban public drones, and indeed a ban was briefly enacted when Barack Obama visited the UK earlier this month. Others believe we are now past a simple ban and have touted the use of "death-ray" devices to potentially obliterate handcrafted drones flying near airports.

With so much negative press, it's difficult to work out what exactly is the point of drones. When they're not attempting to give planes engine failure, flying drugs into prisons or guiding missiles to strike civilian targets, do they have a nice side? I spoke to a couple of drone enthusiasts, and one concerned air traffic controller, to see if any of them could successfully defend these flying death machines.

First up, Ethan Kerswell of Extreme Fliers, a drone company that first reached public attention on Dragon's Den.


Ethan's husband and Extreme Fliers co-founder Vernon flying Micro Drone 3.0, photo by Ethan Kerswell

VICE: Imagine that the government bans all drones tomorrow. What would happen to the world?
Ethan: That would actually be huge. Drones have changed people's lives, not just in terms of personal entertainment. They are the future when it comes to government research, videos, photography, education, fuel, Amazon Prime air delivery and rescue services, to name a few. If an ambulance is stuck in traffic, a drone could potentially save a life. They could potentially see us saving a lot of money on postage and fuel. There is no limit for technology and ideas. It would be difficult to ban them.

What's the best thing you've done with a drone?
A few years ago, no one knew what a drone was. Vernon was in Washington DC doing some filming outside the White House on a mini drone. A security guard caught him in the act. He assumed Vernon was a spy. But then he just started asking him questions about it, like where and when he would be able to buy one.

Can flying a drone make you feel good about yourself?
The first time you fly a drone, you feel amazing. These days you can use a virtual reality headset whilst you're flying it, such as a 3D $15 Google Cardboard. It's as if you are flying with the birds, just on another level of feeling.

Next, I spoke to the guy behind the Facebook Group UK Drone Racing, Johnny Finnerty, for his thoughts on why humanity needs drones.

Photo by Johnny Finnerty

VICE: Hi Johnny. Tell me about your Facebook page.
Johnny: I have a drone track in Leicester where people race. We build our drones from scratch so that when they inevitably get smashed up, we can easily repair them. Our motto is built not bought. I'm an electrical engineer.

So what do you and your group's members think of drone restrictions?
At the moment, regulation is good but needs revisiting. People still don't know the rules. The Dutch government was looking at using trained eagles to bring down drones. It is ridiculous and absolutely absurd to start using animals to take out flying machinery. UK councils are starting litigations to try and ban flying drones in particular areas, despite the fact they may not actually rule the land. Personally, I don't want a drone hovering in my back garden. But I would never fly my drone anywhere near my house. We have a designated area to fly drones safely.

How can drones change the world for the better?
I want to take kids off their PlayStations and put them in a field to experience this amazing, new technology.

That's all very well, but what about someone who has to deal with drones on a daily basis? I spoke to Paul Beauchamp, who works for air traffic control organisation NATS, about drones, danger and aviation.

Photo via kov-A-c

VICE: Air traffic control is, in part, responsible for the safe landing of airplanes. What risks do drones pose?
Paul Beauchamp: From an air traffic control point of view, they're not something we can see on radar. They're sort of invisible to us, which is an issue. Another issue is that no one quite knows what impact a drone would have on an aircraft's engine. Precautions must be taken.

You mentioned precautions. If a pilot reports a drone sighting to air traffic control, what precautionary measures do you take?
As drones are not on radar, it is our job to warn all other aircrafts in the vicinity about the sighting. We may have to stop arrivals or departures until it had a chance to be investigated, including by police. You are looking at quite a lot of disruption, really.

What lessons can drone users learn from the recent report of a near collision at Heathrow?
Drones are an exciting new technology. But people need to understand that when they fly drones, they have the same responsibilities as a conventional pilot. There are rules and regulations to follow. The trouble is, a lot of people do not know they exist. You would have thought there was no need to tell someone to fly a drone in the vicinity of an airport.

More on VICE:

The Future of Border Securing Technology Is Here and It's Terrifying

The First HIV-Fighting Drones Have Been Deployed in Africa

Eagles May Be Able to Fight Drones But They're Also Selfish and Dumb