Nothing to Fear Here: Five Common Misconceptions About Drones

Although the public is fascinated with their potential, drones remain a point of much skepticism and concern.

The public’s interest is rooted in several things, perhaps the most obvious being the prospect of flying camera-equipped machines becoming a common sight in our airspace. Drones have been in the public eye for several years now, having been given a timely moment in the spotlight after an episode of 60 Minutes where Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos publicly announced their Prime Air program, which plans to use drones to get Amazon orders to customers in 30 minutes or less.

While something like Prime Air shows the potential convenience benefits of drones, there are many common misconceptions about drones that have led the public to be skeptical of the technology and how it may impact their privacy. In a Reuters poll, 73% of respondents believe that drones should have regulations, demonstrating a growing unease about drone usage.

The most significant pushback against drone technology concerns privacy and safety—two areas where legislation has so far struggled to keep up with drones. In the United States, however, new regulations from the FAA could set the tone for drone-related laws across the globe.

Here are five misconceptions about drones.

1. Drones Can Spy on Me in My Private Residence

This thought is frequently the driving force of anti-drone arguments. Still, it’s worth keeping in mind that FAA regulations prohibit drones from flying above 400 feet.

The key here, though, is that most consumer-level camera technology won’t be able to spot much at that altitude. In reality, if someone wants to spy on you in your backyard and take pictures, they are better off peeping through a gate or over a fence. For any peeping toms, using drones is an expensive and ineffective way to spy on anyone in their private residence. As a result, this concern is blown out of proportion.

Nevertheless, privacy is only the first of several concerns; experts also content that drones pose more of a threat to shared airspace than to our privacy, citing reports like this one, where a jetliner and drone nearly collided.

2. Drones Are a Threat to Airplanes

While near-misses do happen, that’s the extent of it. There have been no casualties to date as a result of a drone and a plane crashing. That’s mostly because drones are incapable of taking down planes. Although there are many reports of near-misses, there are not many drones that can reach the altitude of a plane.

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Even for newer models that can, like the Phantom 3, they often feature geo-fencing technology that uses GPS to automatically avoid flying near airports. As a result, many pilot reports of near-misses tend to be exaggerated. Even if a drone were to crash into a plane, it’s extremely unlikely to take it down. The chances of a drone crashing into a plane and doing any sort of damage is extraordinarily miniscule.

So if privacy and aircraft interference are mostly non-issues, what else is there?

3. Drones Contribute to Noise Pollution

While the word “drone” suggests ample sound on its own, a better classification is RPV (remotely piloted vehicle), which is how the military refers to drones. The name is more apt, as recent drone technology has worked to reduce sound significantly. In fact, the UK-based Royal Society for the Protection of Birds already utilizes a mini drone with six electric motors. It’s so quiet that it doesn’t even disturb a mother bird in her nest, since even the sound of wind brushing against leaves is louder than the sounds of the drone.

In other words, drone-related noise pollution is more an environmental problem than a matter of human annoyance. As a result, it’s likely that future improvements in drone technology will be driven as much by government pressure as by private sector innovation, as is the case with emerging clean air standards. However, as Hodgson Russ spokesman Frank Sciremammano points out, federal regulations don’t always fare that well in courts, however well-intentioned they may be.

4. The Technology for Delivery Drones Isn’t There Yet

Another common criticism of drone technology is its infeasibility to actually be used in a widespread way to do certain tasks, such as deliver packages.

A fairly legitimate argument in regard to delivery drones is the obstacles they will encounter during harsh weather. Current drones don’t do very well in heavy rain and wind, with the potential for the drone failing and crashing down on private property. Regardless, drone technology continues to advance and the models are getting stronger each day. A

s more environment-proof drones reach the development stage, it will be possible to use these devices to send items and medical supplies to hard-to-reach areas, such as to lost hikers or those in war zones. For this criticism, it’s a better idea to consider the vast future benefits rather than linger on current technological obstacles, which will be remedied in time.

Along the lines of the tech just not being there yet, some express concern that not enough regulations are in place to prevent rogue pilots from using drones as a weapon. It’s not at all unlike the emergence of self-driving car technology, which could reach more American cities by the end of the year. Many fear that neither regulations nor the language of the law are prepared for that particular revolution.

5. There’s No Way to Take Them Down

Envisioning a worst-case scenario, some have criticized the fact that—in case of a “drone attack”—there is no way to take a drone down by jamming its signals. In actuality, nearly all GPS-guided drones have something called a “lost link protocol,” a failsafe that will force the drone to guide itself back to a safe and predetermined destination. As far as the inability to bring a drone down, that’s likely for the best; if hackers were able to bring down drones at will, everyone would live in fear of a failed drone falling down directly on their head.

These five areas are frequently touched on by those critical of drones, but the fact remains: public consensus does not always reflect the facts. The above misconceptions are a result of incorrect data and mistaken, albeit reasonably well-intentioned, concerns. In reality, drone technology continues to improve, as do the regulations that address our privacy and safety.