The Interview: Joseph Dalby, barrister and qualified drone pilot

9 Apr 2015

Joseph Dalby

Aviation regulators and lawmakers across the world will have to lift their eyes to the skies and create privacy and commercial rules for drones, says barrister Joseph Dalby, a qualified drone pilot.

Along with robotics, 3D printing and smart devices, aerial drones have to be one of the most compelling innovations of recent times. When they are not being used to maim and kill in Afghanistan or deliver drugs into Irish prisons, the technology is being embraced for better uses such as capturing stunning photography and herding sheep, and may even deliver goods to our front door.

These issues and more will be discussed in earnest next week at the Digital Rights Europe 2015 Conference in Dublin.

Dalby will present a paper titled Eyes-in-the-Sky: Drones, Data and Privacy. Dalby is a practising barrister, qualified drone pilot and director of Flightpath Consulting, which provides key regulatory and commercial assistance on the use of drones for a variety of civil and commercial applications.

“I only got intersted in drones last year because I saw the subject cropping up in the news and I tracked it. I went off and did a course on flying drones and immediately saw that there would be a lot of concerns arising from the use of drones as it crosses over into law. I was motivated by intrigue and curiousity and developed it further to a point where I am licensed by the Irish Aviation Authority.”

Drones, privacy and the law

Dalby explains that just like CCTV and internet privacy have led to a myriad of legal concerns, the same is going to be true for drones because, theoretically, any one of us can become a pilot.

“What is interesting about drones in terms of data and privacy, while CCTV and the internet lead to obvious concerns about gathering data, drones really expand the potential for documenting and recording visual images far more than CCTV and ground-based photography.

“This is because you are documenting real-life images and drones can get to places where people can’t. So it’s not just about reconciling drone law with digital rights, it is about reconciling this new technology with old common law rights and rules about trespass and also combining this with aviation regulation and airspace law.

“Drones present an interesting cauldron of legal issues that potentially every owner or user will need to be aware of.

“On the one hand drones capture the imagination of people who might want to use them in the same way as flying a kite, but once you start using them you are up against a panaply of issues, especially if you are using them for commercial purposes.

“And then there are the concerns of people who are concerned about interference with their privacy, are they being filmed and what’s going to happen to their data?”

Dalby says that currently Ireland isn’t equipped for this range of issues, although courts would most likely tackle their use in harassment cases.

“Ultimately the Irish Aviation Authority (IAA) is there to regulate airspace and can regulate commercial aviation and set the framework for legislation. It is not equipped to regulate relationships between neighbours.

“The IAA can regulate the use of these devices near towns and buildings. Other organisations could have a role in the debate, like the Gardai. In London, the Metropolitan Police are banning flying of drones in the London area.

“The real difficulty is going to be in terms of how we deal with the hobbyist, and that’s where local authorities may come in.

“There are places in Ireland where flying is restricted, such as the Phoenix Park, and there are places in Dublin where you need consent from at least three organisations. Ultimately cities are not the best places to fly drones.”

Drone deliveries: the near future of commerce?

There is serious testing taking place across North America and Europe of drones being used to deliver goods. Amazon recently moved an R&D group to Canada to benefit from more commercially-friendly regulations there.

Dalby is convinced that delivery drones will be a reality in the future, not just for local deliveries but even long-range delivery. However, there is a long way to go before this goes mainstream.

For example, he doesn’t believe it would be feasible to deliver goods at present to individual premises but rather drones will be able to deliver packages to community drop zones and customers will be notified as to where there package is via GPS and when it will arrive.

“Can we map the skies and have technologies that will allow drones to self-separate? Driverless car technology will be more complex to legislate for but if we can do that we can do the same for drones.”

Dalby also believes in more practical uses for drones, such as maritime safety, flying drones out to people in distress at sea.

“In time people will embrace drone technology and eventually responsible and respectable usage will be the norm.

“But it is going to take cases in the courts where people are punished for harassment, interference, endangering others or publishing private data by filming what goes on in back gardens.

“It’s definitely a sensitive time. The UK has called for registration of drone ownership at a European level.

“There is a danger that the hobbyist could complicate the situation as cases arise, but it will be a question of education for all of us. The aviation regulator will need to set the stage for testing drones but the bigger picture involves police, business, legislators, local authorities and many others to create the right environment for the use of this technology.

“Just like with the first motor cars, a man had to walk in front of the cars with a flag, it will take time before drones and their users become law-abiding citizens like the rest of us.”

John Kennedy is a journalist who served as editor of Silicon Republic for 17 years