The Drone-Hunting Police Eagles and the Identification of Drones

Drone Diaries: Part One

Lately, the number of remote-controlled, unmanned aerial vehicles—also known as drones—is rising rapidly. Simple drones are now available at a low price and for the time being they can be used without a license. The entire drone phenomenon, a very hot topic, is bringing forth numerous legal issues, while relevant legislation is only following these technological developments, and at a slower pace. To stimulate debate on the topic, the Ministry of National Development has released a draft on future drone regulation, available here.

As we consider this topic fresh and interesting, KPMG Legal will be publishing a series of articles on drones. We wish to deal with the intriguing legal and other related issues in a simple way, while our main focus will be on the practical implications of their future regulation. Thus, we are also hoping to provide clear answers about drones for readers without a law degree.

The title of our first article written by Bálint Tóásó and Ákos Krénusz, The Drone-hunting Police Eagles and the Identification of Drones, may sound a bit humorous, but in fact the truth of these matters is more captivating than you might think.

The Drone Hunting Police Eagles

The Dutch Police[1] and also the French Army[2] have trained special forces that deploy actual eagles to intercept drones that violate airspace restrictions. Scotland Yard is also pondering the application of these predators as drone interceptors.[3]

Eagles are easy to train for this purpose in that they consider the drones as prey. Unlike the small drones tasked to take down others in violation, eagles do not get injured during such missions.

However, there has been no news of the Hungarian police considering the training of a new flying squad comprised of eagles. In any case, the usage of drone-hunting eagles is an interesting intersection of one of the latest technologies and the traditional hunting methods.

How can we identify the person behind the drone?

Numerous regulations have been affected by the proliferation of drones, since there are many problems arising from their use. Noise from drones can be annoying, not to mention the mere existence of a drone flying over someone’s private property. Moreover, a drone can cause damages or injury if it crashes due to a malfunction. Furthermore, most drones are equipped with a camera, therefore it is more than easy to record video footage or take pictures using these devices. The data protection authority further underlines this in its recommendation:

“[…] a drone can ‘see’ those areas which are not visible to other devices, since it is able to take pictures from places that no one expects. Moreover, it can execute such action without being noticed by the subject, who may not hear the drone.”[4]

In summary, three kind of risks can be detected regarding drones:

  • they can easily take pictures and record footage without permission, therefore they can easily intrude into someone’s privacy;
  • drones can inflict personal injury and other damage in the event of a crash;
  • their noise and the mere sight of them can disturb property owners whose property is being surveilled.

From a legal perspective, the use of drones poses risks entailing data protection, civil law, tort law and protection of personal property issues.

However, the letter of the law cannot be invoked to take action against any violation until we are able to answer one simple and obvious question: Who owns the drone? i.e. who is the “invader” and/or who caused damage? We are not able to enforce our rights to protect our data, assets and property without answering this simple question.

At this point we have already discovered the first down-to-earth problem: How can the person annoyed by the drone identify a device flying high above them and the owner/controller of the vehicle in question?

Firstly, a register would be needed for the purposes of identification. This register should contain the data of the drones and their operators. The draft issued by the Ministry prescribes the compulsory registration of every drone that weighs more than 2 kg. The register would contain the ID number of the drone (a quasi-number plate) and some of the operator’s personal data.

Interestingly enough, the draft does not stipulate the compulsory registration of drones under 2 kg. In fact, the vast majority of drones available on the market do not belong to this category, thus the legislature should consider the registration of these drones, too.

Online registration of smaller-but-more-common drones that would involve just a few clicks online is worth considering. Such registration should be aimed to ensure the simple and easy identification of a drone in the event of a future violation committed through its use. However, this is not enough to identify a drone or its operator while it is committing a violation. Therefore, a drone’s ID number should be visible on it, according to the draft.

The identification of drones is not that easy in most cases considering the fact that they might be operated and controlled from quite far away from where they are flying. The legislative draft attempts to address this problem by prescribing some rather strange obligations, like an obligation for drone operators to wear clothing with a drone symbol that identifies them. It also stipulates that the drone should be controlled within the line of sight of the operator.

It seems the provision on the identifying clothing cannot be easily enforced (and may even create confusion), while the rule on operating distance is ambiguous. Any ID number would not be visible in most cases, and the operater likely cannot be identified either, because one would not see from where the drone is actually being controlled.

There could be a simple and straightforward solution to this problem: the development of a new, free-of-charge application aimed at identifying drones. The application could show users every drone within a 100 meter radius, based on their signals. Those using the application would be able to access the ID numbers (quasi-number plates) of the drones flying in the neighborhood and later could easily trace that information back to the operator of the drone(s).

By using such an application, anyone disturbed by a drone could enforce their rights more effectively, considering they would be able to easily identify a drone’s operator.

In forthcoming posts we will examine the civil law and data protection law perspectives of intrusions committed by drones.

[1] Dutch police fight drones with eagles – BBC News




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