Q. What are the potential safety risks of nonmilitary drone use?

The potential safety risks of unregulated drone use are nontrivial. A number of dangerous incidents involving drones have been reported as individuals have increasingly invested in drones. According to former New York Police Department (NYPD) Commissioner Ray Kelly, the NYPD is still coming to terms with how to think about the use of individual drones because the technology has led the policy to date.41 Indeed, a number of incidents in the New York metropolitan area highlight the potential for concern when it comes to unfettered drone use in densely populated pedestrian areas and airspace. Hardly a month passes where there is not some news report about a commercial airline having to maneuver to avoid colliding with drones in the New York area.

In one of the early publicized episodes on May 29, 2014, three commercial airliners reported seeing small drones at high altitudes. One plane was descending toward LaGuardia and saw a drone at an altitude of about 5,500 ft. above Manhattan. In July 2014, two Manhattan residents were arrested and charged with first-degree reckless endangerment after two drones they were controlling nearly collided with an NYPD helicopter.42 Similarly, in November 2014, recreational drones nearly collided with a commercial airliner near John F. Kennedy Airport and earlier in that same week an NYPD helicopter reported a drone flying at 500 ft. and within 4 miles of La Guardia Airport. The latter incident violated the FAA requirement that pilots notify the airport or air traffic control when flying within 5 miles of an airport; the drone also violated the FAA's drone altitude restrictions.43 The list of such incidents is extensive and growing. In 2014, the FAA reported that it was receiving about 25 notifications of drone sightings or nearencounters per month, including fixed-wing and helicopter drones, amounting to a total of 23 accidents and 236 unsafe incidents stemming from civilian drone use. Theses events are likely to become more common as personal use of drones becomes more popular.

The concerns about individual drone proliferation are not limited to the United States. During October and November 2014, there were a number of sightings of small drones flying over French nuclear reactors. It is still not clear why the drones were flying over the reactors, although one hypothesis is that that they were an "organized provocation" from an antinuclear group. Because the drones are so small and seem to have little more than photo/video capabilities, many do not see them as an immediate threat to the reactors. French officials are, however, taking the matter seriously. Michael Sordi, a lawmaker from Haut-Rhin, warns, "It may be time to start shooting them down, to move to another level of security and sanctions against this behavior." French law forbids flying an aircraft below 3,280 ft. and within 3.1 miles of a nuclear plant. This violation is punishable by one year in prison and a fine of 75,000 euros. In France there are roughly 900 commercial operators and an unknown number of private operators of drones.44

The prospect of nonmilitary drones creating safety concerns took on additional relevance in February 2015, when drones were seen flying over Paris at night, near the Eiffel Tower, Louvre, and the US Embassy. While they were initially dismissed as a prank, the Paris police later held three Al-Jazeera journalists on suspicion of flying drones without a license in France, which is illegal and carries a one-year (maximum) sentence. In the wake of the 2015 killings of Charlie Hebdo journalists, where society was concerned about follow-up attacks, the unattributed drones flying in Paris created substantial unease.

With this type of unauthorized flying of nonmilitary drones in mind, reports indicate that British nuclear plants represent a visible landmark. The United Kingdom has 16 operational reactors that produce about 18% of the country's electricity. John Large, a British nuclear expert, assessed the vulnerability in saying that "the flexible access of maneuverability of the drones" is such that they can transgress barriers that ground vehicles or even manned aircraft might have a difficult time transgressing.45 To be sure, small drones would have trouble penetrating cement walls, but one view is that the drones could be used in reconnaissance to identify structural weaknesses that are then used to inform aerial attacks that then produce meltdown with widespread effects. A campaign event for German Chancellor Angela Merkel in September 2013 was interrupted as a small drone flew toward the podium. The drone landed on the platform in front of Merkel as the operator was arrested. The German Pirate Party claimed responsibility for this act, wanting to show Merkel what it is like to be observed by a drone. Though this incident seemed to be fairly innocuous, it exposed the possible security concerns associated with drones that can transcend barriers intended for road or foot traffic. Even small drones are easily equipped with weapons that could prove very dangerous if used at a public event.

China is reportedly developing countermeasures for these small drones, with a laser weapon system designed to shoot down drones flying at low altitudes. Chinese officials were particularly worried about security risks associated with small drones, as they are cheap and easy to use, making them ideal for terrorists. Similarly, the US military has been moving forward on laser-based systems that can eliminate drones by literally burning them from the sky. Although development remains at the proof-of-concept stage, it does point to the potential of the technology in the future, though as one laser scientist pointed out, "the path to laser weapons is littered with dead lasers."46

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