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17 September 2015

Remote Control 

Developed as a weapon of war, drones are now steadily making their way into the civilian world, and increasingly the commercial environment. Indeed, global spending on commercial drones is expected to total $12 billion over the next decade.

Online retailer Amazon believes drones are the ideal urban delivery mechanism of the future, capable of bringing small packages to customers in as little as 30 minutes. Google and DHL are enthusiasts, too.

In the meantime, authorities are rushing to address the most urgent issue raised by the use of drones: the safety of commercial aircraft.

Following a number of reported near-misses, the European Commission is drawing up common rules for operating drones within the EU. European Parliament members are due to vote this month on a report by British MEP Jacqueline Foster setting out proposals for legislation.

Europe already has some 2,500 licensed small civil drone operators, compared with around 1,500 authorized by the US Federal Aviation Authority. They are currently used in agriculture, energy and photography, and are supposed to operate in air space that is not used by manned aircraft. But issues have arisen when aircraft cross the space in which drones operate during take-off and landing.

However, the legal and regulatory issues go beyond safety.

A bill in California would have classified as criminal trespass the flying of drones lower than 350 feet above commercial property unless landowners first gave permission. While it was defeated, the initiative shows that drones may be subject to local as well as national rules. At least 17 US states have passed laws restricting drone use by citizens, companies or law enforcement agencies.

Europe may be closer to developing a comprehensive regulatory framework for drone operators, but it’s unlikely that Amazon or Google drones will be whisking packages through the streets of Paris or Brussels anytime soon.