We are always looking for innovate ways to use new technology. Increasingly, drones are being used for a variety of civilian purposes and their use has expanded almost exponentially recently. Christopher Hope writes in The Telegraph about the use of drones to even help in obtaining consent for windfarms. Next we will see them used for infrared cameras to check on the energy performance of buildings. Or, has that happened already? Does anyone know?
Drones to check planning applications
Drones are being used by councils in England to fly over the homes of people making planning applications, the Daily Telegraph has learned.
A Freedom of Information survey of hundreds of councils found that a dozen had admitted to using or hiring drones. Two councils – Epping Forest and Moray – said the drones could be used to check on planning applications.
Other councils had used them to check on conditions of council buildings, to survey dangerous structures and monitor on coastal erosion.
The revelation last night raised questions over privacy. The Liberal Democrats called for a code of practice to govern how councils use drones while the information watchdog said it was “concerned” by the news and said councils should consider whether drones were “necessary and proportionate”.
Drones are officially known as unmanned aerial vehicles or UAVs. Their origins can be traced to the military in the 1960s but today smaller versions are used for all sorts of purposes by companies and individuals.
Internet giants Amazon and Google are developing drones that deliver parcels while Facebook wants to use giant drones to carry internet signal to remote areas.
Epping Forest District Council said it had bought two of the drones for £5,000 in February this year. In council documents seen by the Telegraph, the local authority said that the drones could be used by officials its Planning Enforcement and its Emergency Planning departments.
Homeowners and their neighbours “could be alerted about possible overflying when the Council wrote to inform them about the planning application”, it said adding that any “covert operations would be covered by the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000”.
The council conceded that “there could be potential issues if the operators were not properly trained, but Council staff who operated the system would be properly trained”.
It added that it felt “residents were now more relaxed about aerial views of their properties; the reliability of the cameras were better and the training of the operators were better”.
The council said: “The intention would be to fly high enough that there would be no danger to either humans or livestock.
“The aerial camera systems would be available for use across the Council, but there had not yet been any discussions with neighbouring councils regarding their possible hire.”
Moray Council said it had hired three drones in the past two years. Its planning committee decided in February said that the drones could provide better views of some sites seeking consent such as windfarm applications.
Alistair Carmichael, the LibDems’ home affairs spokesman, said: “Councils should not be spending tax payers money on owning or renting drones. There is no real need for them. It is busy-body local government at its worst.”
The Information Commissioner’s Office said it was “concerned” by the news and said councils should consider whether drones were “necessary and proportionate”.
A spokesman said it had not taken any action against councils or public bodies over drone usage.
“We are always concerned with developments like this that they will start to be used without having a clear purpose justification and without data protection safeguards in place. In addition to engaging with government and producing our own guidance, we have also worked with the CAA on its guidance to drone operators to ensure legitimate privacy concerns are addressed”.
He said: “We are always concerned with developments like this that they will start to be used without having a clear purpose justification and without data protection safeguards in place.
“In addition to engaging with government and producing our own guidance, we have also worked with the CAA on its guidance to drone operators to ensure legitimate privacy concerns are addressed.”
Renate Samson, chief executive of campaigners Big Brother Watch, added: “Councils may claim that they need to use drones to ensure good behaviour of local residents, but snooping on citizens’ homes, gardens and private space without forewarning or explanation is an infringement of privacy and runs counter to the advice for proper use provided by the civil aviation authority.
“As complaints from the general public to the police regarding drones increase year on year, councils must refrain from using this technology as flying spies in the sky.”
A Local Government Association spokesman said: “There is already a wide range of rigorous and robust legislation and codes governing the use of drones by councils to safeguard people’s privacy.
“Councils take people’s privacy seriously and rarely use drones and when they do it would be, for example, to survey structures where access is difficult and dangerous, such as bridges or high buildings. This helps protect public safety.”
The Civil Aviation Authority said that “anyone who wants to operate a drone for commercial use… they must firstly complete an authorised training course and then apply to the CAA for a permission”.
It said that a commercial operator “can fly a drone under 7kg in a congested area, however they must still remain 50m away from a building, structure or person”.
Specific permission must be obtained from the CAA to fly heavier drones over congested areas. According to the CAA, only one council – Powys in Wales – has so far applied to the CAA for a drone licence, according to an official CAA register of drone operators published last week.
A Moray council spokesman said: “The occasions we have used drones were in open farmland and construction sites, nowhere near residential.
“Operators are fully licensed and experienced. If it was essential to use in a residential area for planning purposes, all residents would be notified in advance. This is an unlikely scenario however.”
An Epping Forest spokesman said: “The Council owns two UAVs but are not currently using them. We are still in the process of putting together training and documentation, including a Policy.
“This Policy will ensure usage fully conforms with the Human Rights Act, Data Protection Act and the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act.”
The council said its pilots were “in the process of obtaining CAA accreditation” and developing a manual detailing “all of our proposed usages and the steps taken to ensure we meet legislative and safety requirements”.