One report valued the global consumer drone market size at $3.42 billion in 2021 and predicted it to grow at a compound rate of 13.8% from 2022 to 2030. Similarly, an EU forecast document projected that by 2035, the European drone sector will have an economic impact exceeding €10 billion per year, and estimated that by 2050 there will be 7 million consumer drones operating across Europe. The sector is booming and is set for substantial growth, but cases of drone malpractice or mishandling are equally flourishing. In order to optimize drone operations and redeem its positive societal value, it is integral to assess the problematic financial, human and environmental consequences. Only then can we look to reduce, mitigate and control unintended costs of drone misuse.
Financial damage of drone misuse
Direct hits from dangerous payloads, flying shrapnel, collisions with other aircrafts or buildings, all inevitably cause financial damage, but the costs beyond this are much more complex and much more pertinent. Interruption or obstruction to the day to day running of businesses, government facilities or critical infrastructure carry severe repercussions. The now infamous Gatwick incident where a drone merely being sighted on an airport’s runway, cost $75 million in delays, damages and diversions. The subsequent mobilization of the army and police to support the operation cost £800,000. Airlines took the biggest hit, losing the equivalent of around $64 million – this included welfare payments to tens of thousands of passengers as well as the overall loss of revenue.
Dropping contraband into prisons also charges a hefty sum, and not just to the taxpayer who ends up footing the bill for better security to deter the drone threat. The value of the payloads entering prisons is high stakes. In Australia, 2022 police investigated an attempt to smuggle $250,000 worth of drugs into a Queensland prison. These type of attempts supports criminal activities and leads to a multitude of downstream costs due to the expensive outcomes of crime on the public purse and the communities affected.
Drone misuse can also have broader economic consequences, such as deterring investment in drone technology and related industries as well as reducing public trust in the safe use of drones, leading to decreased demand. It is in everyone’s interest to invest in drone detection and mitigation technologies, improve regulations and prosecute negligent or criminal operators, if we are to rely on drones contributing to a healthy economy, rather than undermining it.
Human impact of drone misuse
Damage to property or to people themselves is likely the ramifications most think of when asked about the negative impact of drones. Commercial drones flying over public space, with a dense, urban sprawl below means that small mistakes could result in clashes with people or key infrastructure. Likewise, the collision between drones and other aircraft can be devastating – ranging from compromised vision through shattered windshields to reduction of power if a drone were to find its way inside one of the engines. Most unnerving are the toxic or chemical payloads drones can transport. These intend to do harm and often do if released.
Privacy is a cornerstone of civilized society. We take for granted our information, our opinions, our interactions and our daily activities usually go unscrutinized. This is another well documented issue associated with drones. Unauthorized flights over private property which then capture images or videos, violate individuals’ privacy rights. By extension, if a drone is seen above a mass event, or a party hosted by a celebrity with a view to taking clandestine footage, the reactions by security teams on the ground could be to evacuate attendees, call emergency services or intercept the drone directly. All these actions result would be inconvenient at best, and traumatic at worst to those in attendance.
Despite the potential pitfalls, drones by and large support humanity through a variety of efforts – such as search and rescue, assessing natural hazards, civil protection, mapping territories and difficult to reach locations and delivering supplies in isolated or dangerous areas. Through reckless flying or criminal endeavours a drone can do serious damage, but through careful oversight and collaborative working, the impact on humans can actually be quite beneficial.
Environmental consequences of drone misuse
The effect on wildlife or the natural environment is still a nascent field of research and doesn’t attract the same prominence as other topics during discussions about the costs of drone deployment. Like any battery powered, or energy intensive device, there will be a tendency to focus on the trade-offs between emissions and the benefits of drone use, but there is a broader scope to consider. As drones become more pervasive, light and noise pollution are growing problems. Night flights can disturb wildlife and plants as the appearance and sound of drones interfere with their natural cycles.
Evidence of birds mistaking drones for other birds is also developing. There was one such case of eagles targeting a drone for food in Austria. These may seem like remote occurrences, but the more drones occupy the skies, the more birds will interact with them. Wild animals also see drones as a threat, which has led to some authorities banning drones from operating in parks. More studies on the environmental impact of drones are needed, whether it is focused on emissions, the toxicity of payloads or the trespass into natural ecosystems. We should not wait until a disaster before implementing robust regulations on how drones can work in parallel with nature.
Collective efforts to counter misuse
Drones provide many benefits. They are particularly useful in remote, inaccessible, or dangerous settings. They are also attractive to people who may use them maliciously, recklessly, negligently or with criminal intent. Like most new technologies there is going to be a learning curve and faults, accidents or unintended costs are expected. It is paramount at this stage, while drones and counter-UAS solutions are becoming widespread and impact is being measured, that everyone involved in the sector – lawmakers, drone pilots, industry, government, engineers – comes to the table, so we can reduce the fallout, and ensure a safer, more reliable, more considerate, and more considered device for the benefit of all.