Forgive me if I share a prejudice. ‘Just one?’ you say, ‘But Richard, we’re under the apprehension you have so many!’
Well, yes I do. Today’s prejudice is drones. Not the buzzy bee type that zip around in the summer collecting pollen. No. I’m prejudiced against the sort with little plastic rotors that whizz around public parks, as they’re inexpertly coaxed into the right position. Actually, truth to tell, it’s the owners that cause me disgruntlement.
Often gentleman of a certain age, whether they are a Kevin, a Gordon or a Sidney, in my skewed worldview these will be the first to buy new gizmos. After spending hours reading technical reviews in boring magazines. Prior to perfecting the art of loudly and disturbingly flying a drone, so they can take a self-portrait of their slightly balding head from a most unbecoming angle. This will be the drone’s literal high point, before a rapid descent to the back of the sock drawer with last year’s gizmo; the speaking alarm clock or the Bluetooth enabled toothbrush.
I’m sure my prejudice hides my awe and my own inadequacy, of course. Just as I never had the patience to make model aircraft when I was a kid, like Kevin. Nor did I get the bug of photography, like Gordon. And Sidney’s got more apps in his watch then I’ve had hot dinners. But, here we live on our little island. All 75 million of us crammed in together and see what happens. A bloke with a drone can close a major international airport for 36 hours1. A thousand flights disrupted and 140,000 people’s journeys delayed. Whoops.
Of course conspiracy theorists will tell us it was a cunning plot. However, in the absence of evidence to the contrary, and Occam’s Razor2, I’d suggest our mythic Kevin, Gordon or Sidney was just having a play in his back garden. Perhaps there was an accident, a kerfuffle, and after mass hysteria, suddenly we’ve invested millions of pounds at the nation’s airports and, are the proud owners of mega-laser-anti-drone weapons of mass distraction. I’m pleased. It’s another job that didn’t exist when I was young; mega-laser-anti-drone-operator – to which my nephew and niece can aspire.
We have to be honest with ourselves here. It’s the human condition. Whatever we invent someone, somewhere will do something stupid with the new shiny toy. Just because. After the first caveman invented fire, I’m certain the second caveman accidently burnt his cave down because he wondered if his cave-sofa was flammable.
To me the answer is not weaponizing our airports (although perhaps we should since drones and remote controlled planes have been used to devastating effect in real conflicts since the 70s). It is about putting sensible controls around devices that can otherwise cause havoc in the hands of the unwary or foolish.
All drones could be sold with a SIM card. A drone can’t fly without a SIM card, which acts as a licence of ownership. The SIM talks to our national mobile networks and simple triangulation prohibits use above a designated height, near airports or, over motorways or prisons. Drone engineering is not rocket science! And over Christmas a ‘find my drone feature’ feature activated in Gatwick would have helped a great deal.
Drones are just the first class of ‘can be dangerous if we’re stupid’ tools that we’ll have in the coming years. Electric scooters, bikes and mopeds litter some American cities as new travel share companies come up with amazing new technologies to avoid walking or cycling.
Figuring out how our industry can help society manage this well is the right way forward – rather than wait for hysterical press articles to can speeding pavement scooters. I would like to see a responsible supermarket have an IOT SIM based tracker solution on every shopping trolley. Not least as I want Waitrose or Sainsbury’s or Tesco to responsibly pick them out of the canal and park. Smart cities begin with smart citizens and smart laws.
Libertarians will undoubtedly scoff at my maternal notions, but I think we have in our industry, the most wonderful tools to enable ‘polluter pays’ principles3 and attempt to nudge behaviour in the right direction. I want to live in a country where Kevin, Gordon and Sidney can drone with pleasure and 140,000 people are spared a day and a half at Gatwick airport. After all, there’s only so much fun to be had in a duty free shop.
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