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New Zealand's longest-running online daily news and commentary publication, now in its 23rd year. The opinion pieces presented here are not purported to be fact but reasonable effort is made to ensure accuracy.

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Toy or terror?

7 December 2012

In the UK the government is currently in a bit of a bind with respect to technology.

They're being pressured by numerous groups to step in and take action in respect to the way that technology is affecting people's right to privacy.

What a joke!

This, in what is perhaps the most surveilled nation in the world -- where government operated CCTV cameras are on almost every street corner?

Here is a BBC report I suggest you watch.

I have already received many emails from Brits who are gravely concerned at what may follow on in the wake of the Levinson report and the paranoia surrounding these privately owned "drones".

Quite frankly, I find the move from some quarters to have these craft banned or severely restricted on the grounds of privacy absolutely ridiculous -- but then again, that's the kind of thing Governments love to do.

Take the examples cited in that BBC report where privacy could be compromised by a hovering multirotor...

Firstly, what if someone hovers their drone outside a neighbour's bedroom window and gets video of some nuptial action?

Well duh! That is already illegal. And what's more, the same thing could be done by standing on your own roof with a camcorder that has 10x zoom, using a ladder or simply tying your camera to a long pole. Ought we therefore ban roofs, camcorders ladders and any stick longer than 1m?

Obviously not. Like all things, high or low tech, there is use and mis-use. To use one of these craft for invading a neighbour's privacy is a mis-use and privacy laws exist to protect us against such things. We don't ban knives just because a small percentage of the population choose to use them in the commission of crimes.

Then there's the example of a couple picnicking in a public place and having their privacy invaded by a "drone"...

Well I'm sorry but anyone who has an expectation of privacy in a public place is obviously unaware of the meaning of the word "public". If you want a "private" picnic then go and find some private property and picnic there with the permission of the owner.

How would these people respond if another family decided to unroll their picnic blanket beside them -- within earshot and easy view? Should we have laws that mandate at least 100m between picnic blankets in public areas?

Yes, there is a need for some kind of control over these devices to avoid the situation where some idiot flies a 5Kg multirotor over the heads of a crowd of people and something goes wrong. Work out the potential energy of 5Kg suspended 50m above the ground and you'll see that there is significant potential for danger.

It make sense therefore, to stratify the type of craft into toys, hobby-grade and professional categories -- based on weight, speed and the requirements for flying.

For example, one of the little Parrot multirotors or Ladybird QR 35g quads would be considered pretty much harmless. Even if one did fall from the sky and hit you on the head, the result would be no worse than being hit by a mis-thrown tennis ball -- in fact, probably far less. Why therefore, make criminals out of all those people who have these toys sitting in their livingrooms or kids' bedrooms?

The hobby grade could be restricted to a maximum weight and be prohibited from flying directly over people or vulnerable properties (such as cars, glass-houses, etc).

Professional gear would likely be much heavier (and therefore more dangerous) therefore it would be further restricted as to where/when it could be flown, with more attention to ensuring that the public and their property are protected from the risks.

Will such commonsense prevail?

Unfortunately, I fear not.

Remember that politicians/lawmakers often come from the bottom of the heap, having failed in their attempts to become insurance or used-car salesmen and left with only one vocation available to them. Their response to hard situations is simply to try and make the problem go away by banning that which they do not understand.

Stay tuned -- tens of thousands of happy hobbyists might soon be classified as "criminals" by the UK justice system -- with the rest of the world probably more than happy to follow in their footsteps.

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