Australian law is unequipped for the “tsunami” of unmanned aerial vehicles capturing the interest of both public authorities and private citizens, experts have warned.
Speaking at last week’s Police Technology Forum, Peggy MacTavish of the Australian Association for Unmanned Systems said UAVs have the potential to be game changing technology for policing, search and rescue and border control.
But Matthew Albert, a lawyer and policy committee member with Liberty Victoria warned the law was very poorly equipped to respond to "the advent of the drone".
Both the Victorian and Queensland police have confirmed plans to trial drones for surveillance purposes, including in the lead up to the G20 conference in Brisbane next year.
“I don’t use the d-word,” MacTavish said, arguing it was important the community understood the difference between civilian and military applications of the technology.
“Civilian applications carry a different connotation to the d-word,” she said.
Albert disagreed. He said it was the use of drones for surveillance that had the potential to make people paranoid.
He cited existing examples of police using drones at festivals or to monitor people during protests, or the potential use of drones by commercial interests seeking to obtain information about competitors.
“If it’s the case that we’re heading down the path of drones being used by both public authorities and private individuals on a significant scale then the next step is you and I being justifiably paranoid that something so high I can’t see that is recording what I’m doing,” Albert said.
He added that there was nothing in the law stopping a person from buying a UAV from Harvey Norman and having it hovering over a police station, or hacking into someone else’s UAV to see what it was they were interested in.
“And so it becomes essentially a technological warfare scenario that is really unchecked in both directions, and that’s the concern,” Albert said.
MacTavish played down the concerns, arguing unmanned aerial systems weren’t the only technology capable of recording what people were doing.
“I don’t disagree that we need laws in place to deal with it, but I disagree that we’re the only technology out there that’s doing it,” she said.
MacTavish said the AAUS had worked with the Civil Aviation Safety Authority, which already has guidelines on the use of unmanned and model aircraft, to work out how and for what uses regulation of UAVs is required.
In the US, the Senate Judiciary Committee will this week hold hearings on the law enforcement and privacy considerations of drones.
It comes as former Wired editor Chris Anderson told the New York Times he’s selling around 7,500 drones every quarter through his DIY Drones company.
“The sky’s going to be dark with these things,” he predicted.
MacTavish said unmanned systems were very regulated in terms of where they could launch in Australia and how they could operate.
“Even when it comes to model aircraft there are rules in place and CASA does have the ability to go out and issue fines,” she said.
“If indeed all of a sudden our skies are swarming with unmanned systems it would be no different to having safety cameras, and you get a ticket for what you do wrong.”
Senior Sargeant Greg Davies, who is secretary of the Victorian Police Association, said there were many search and rescue applications for UAV technology.
“Lost bushwalkers and particularly children are much more easily found through thermal imaging technology than by teams on foot,” he said.
Davies said there were issues with the bandwidth required for use by police during major disasters, particularly for live video feeds.
Police and emergency services have been seeking a higher allocation of 700 MHz spectrum, but instead have been offered a slice of the adjacent 800 MHz band.
“Police have been offered 10 MHz, but considering that 10 has to be split into 5 MHz to transmit up and 5 MHz to transmit back down, it will actually only provide for the current average daily use of policing throughout Australia,” Davies said.
MacTavish said regulations still had to advance to allow for successful use of UAV technology in search and rescue.
“At the moment, to do search and rescue it’s pretty much impossible," she said, because it required a number of approvals.
"If someone’s drowning or in a fire, you can’t just say: "Hang on I’ll be with you in three weeks".
"While the public perception may be you can just go out and do what you like (with unmanned systems), that's certainly not the case."