A company that recently listed on the ASX is banking on being able to protect us all from drones.
Since October, Australians have been allowed to fly a commercial drone weighing up to 2kg without requiring a licence from the Civil Aviation Safety Authority.
There are still restrictions. You can’t fly:
- In controlled or prohibited airspace
- Within 30m of another person
- Above 122 metres at night
- Over emergency operations
- Out of the drone pilot’s direct line of sight or
- Over crowds if it in any way endangers those crowds
Work your way through those and it’s obvious there’s still one place a complete stranger to you can fly their drone – and that’s pretty much everywhere.
That includes over your house, backyard, local beach, with a full HD camera humming along recording proceedings.
And this special kind of awfulness:
Drivers stuck in traffic in Mexico City are being buzzed lately by a fleet of drones carrying ads for UberPOOL. https://t.co/c6ZCnjt3UG
— MIT Tech Review (@techreview) October 14, 2016
You might be thinking “Well, that breaches some kind of privacy law, right?”
But CHOICE already asked Special Counsel Matthew Craven of the law firm Corrs Chambers Westgarth about that, and got this reply:
“I am not aware of any case in Australia where a private individual has successfully taken action against a drone pilot for breaching their privacy, whether under the Privacy Act or under any other law.”
In fact, he says, unless the pilot is working for an organisation worth at least $3 million in annual revenue, “it is not possible” to take action against that pilot.
In a nutshell, it’s an archaic throwback to the notion that if your neighbour is peeking over your fence, you’ve got every right – to build a bigger fence.
So yes, if your kids (or you) are running nudie under the sprinkler and a drone hovers in 31m away, because we are Australians, our immediate thought is:
Try it though, and expect to be pinged for at least the cost of the drone. If you were in the US, a jail term is not out of the question.
You can always fill out a CASA complaint form – but it can only deal with matters of safety, not privacy.
That’s not to say it’s 100% certain you won’t win a battle in court. But it’s complicated.
Ears on the sky
That’s where DroneShield comes in, or has been coming in, to be precise, for several years now.
For the past two years, it’s had its eyes on the skies over Boston, ready to alert US police to any drone-borne danger since the Boston Marathon became a target for terrorists in 2013.
Although it was founded in the US, DroneShield in June IPO’d in Australia, and is already expanding in preparation for a market it believes has almost unlimited potential.
Revenue last year was low – $123,862 for the period ending September 30, 2015 and a statutory loss of $120,000. But in a good sign that the DroneShield team is onto a winner, the IPO raised $7 million for a market capitalisation of $27 million.
Here’s what early investors are excited about:
Underwhelming? Granted, it’s not an exciting look.
But DroneShield’s propriety technology is all in the way its monitors listen for drones. It matches their sounds to its growing library of drones droning.
When a new drone hits the market, DroneShield runs it through their proprietary audio-signature software in a US Department of Defense approved anechoic chamber, and adds it to their growing database.
And that bit of kit above is one version of the kind of “ears” DroneShield sells to you or I, because according to DroneShield CEO James Walker, privacy “has become more and more of a concern with the way legislation has gone in Australia”.
“In Australia, it is illegal to have a countermeasure, be it as simple as jamming it or a gun that shoots a net over a drone or taking control of it,” Walker says. “It’s completely illegal in Australia – as it is in North America or Europe – to do anything about impacting a drone.”
That’s because legislation hasn’t kept up with technology and drones are treated like planes. You can’t disrupt a plane, so you can’t disrupt a drone.
Even in the US, with all their freedoms to act as they see fit, state police aren’t allowed to take down a drone. Only the military has that right.
But at the very least, you can know one is coming. Right now, the cost of DroneShield “running into the thousands” is a little prohibitive, unless you’re protecting your ground troops or own a hotel where high profile guests want to be able to sit on their balconies unmolested.
But Walker sees a future arriving fast where a couple of more affordable DroneShield sensors will give anyone 360-degree coverage and notify them as soon as a drone enters their space.
The best analogy he can find is when you’re swimming at the beach, the shark warning goes off and you get out of the water.
“Detection is good enough in that situation,” he says.
“You get the warning, you go inside, you close the blinds if you’re really worried about getting your picture taken.”
Run inside and close the blinds. This, right now, is what we’re reduced to in Australia.
A very clear and very present danger
But privacy issues are just the tip of the wedge.
In just the past year:
- Drone operators crashed UAVs into a US football stadium and at the US Open, where spectators were lucky to have not been injured.
- A drunk operator crashed a DJI Phantom drone on the White House lawn. A drone which landed on the roof of the Japanese prime minister’s office in April was carrying radioactive sand.
- And at a US Homeland Security briefing, attendees were told of an exercise which saw $5000 worth of drones fitted with semi-automatic weapons take out a convoy of armoured vehicles.
Closer to home, a drone crash-landed in Tasmania’s Risdon Prison just weeks ago, carrying a stash of drugs, mobile phones and SIM cards. NSW has recorded at least six similar attempts in the past year.
“What we’re seeing around the world is now becoming more and more common in Australia,” Walker says. “Just recently we saw the Sydney Harbour Bridge closed when a car got hit by a drone.”
The drone fell hard enough to puncture a new Mercedes:
So while drones might not be dominating your airspace right now, they’re certainly grabbing headlines:
In just two years, DroneShield says it has got its foot in the door with some heavyweight customers (for confidentiality reasons, they can’t tell us who they are).
And some heavyweight board members including former Australian defence minister Robert Hill, a former program manager with Raytheon and DARPA, a UK Field Army commander, and an angel investor who spent five years advising US vice-president Dick Cheney on national security.
So far it has only one publicly listed competitor, a company which relies on visual detection. That might seem like an obvious solution, but Walker says his team settled on its listening technology for several very sensible reasons:
- Camera surveillance: Doesn’t work particularly well over 200m, or when the drone’s flying in the treeline, or at night
- Radar detection: Only works in line of sight. It’s better over longer distances, but not so good over short distance detecting small plastic things close to the ground, and
- RF (frequency) detection: Is currently the second-best option. It relies on detecting the communication between the drone and pilot. But the newer drones now be programmed to work on GPS coordinates, so there is no RF connection.
Walker said DroneShield’s technology – apart from providing the cheapest solution – can pick the sound of a buzzing drone from up to a kilometre away in virtually any situation, from rock concerts to warzones.
It’s now at the stage where a guy can’t even catch some rays atop a giant wind turbine:
So will the day come when every Australian can have their own wedgetail eagle trained to take out a snooping drone over their property?
“The short answer is yes, but I think that will be a trickle down effect,” Walker says.
“It will probably happen at an event where the police are allowed to do something and depending on what that event is, that trickle might actually be a bit deeper.”
The first sign of that change coming has already materialised in California, where over-enthusiastic drone pilots jostled to get footage of wildfires threatening homes. Because that meant water-bombers were grounded due to the danger of crashing into a drone, officials said hang federal law, and instituted a state decree allowing first responders in an emergency situation the right to “do something” about drones.
And in Sweden, legislation was recently passed whereby any drones with a camera mounted on them will now be treated as surveillance cameras. You’ll only get a permit for them if the goal of the filming is to “prevent, detect or investigate crime or to prevent accidents”.
It’s a start, Walker says, but don’t rush out for a shotgun licence just yet.
“Unfortunately, these kinds of laws only change after a big event,” he says. “I don’t think the laws will change until there is a disaster, be it at an airport or something terrible like that, and that will be the catalyst.”
The UK government is preparing for that day. It recently commissioned a study into crashing drones into plane engines to see what happens.
If you think that sounds excessive, in June alone, there were seven events of drones illegally flying at UK airports.
“Every day it’s building, every day there’s another example of drones causing problems and Australia might be a little bit behind, but it’s happening more and more here as well,” Walker says.
The good news is, DroneShield is ready to help when people are actually allowed to defend themselves against an invading drone.
“We’ve been really clear to the market; our strategy is we’re a detection company today,” he says. “But our strategy is to add countermeasures to our capability and actually sell that combined solution in the countries we’re allowed to.”
And those countries do exist, such as Brazil, where it’s perfectly legal to take out a drone entering your space. Walker says DroneShield plans to build that “combined solution” in Australia, sell in countries where it can be legally used and be ready to roll it out in North America, Australia and Europe as the laws change.
If the laws change, he adds.
“It might get to the day where you and I can do something about it but I think in Australia that might be a long way away.”