Stoned Drones, High in the Sky

Civilian ownership and recreational use of drones are increasing exponentially, with consumer grade devices becoming more sophisticated, their presence and influence within society looks set to escalate. For better… or worse?

Their use has been tainted by those with intent to use this technology for malicious purposes.

Smuggling contraband. Sexual offenses. Terrorism.

This begs the question, what regulations should be implemented to prevent such misuse?

To answer this question from an engineer’s perspective, classical philosophical approaches to ethics will be considered.


The extent of the negative consequences from increased drone use in society is both unpredictable and uncontrollable; here, the dangerous activity and illegal use of drones will be examined and strict solutions will be proposed.

There have been many instances reported where civilian drones have been used to deliver a plethora of contraband into UK prisons. Statistics from the BBC [1] show that 33 separate incidents of smuggling via drone were reported in 2015, as opposed to zero cases in 2013.

The Guardian 2010 [2] revealed that there could be as many as 35% of inmates in England and Wales under the influence of drugs at any one time. Worryingly over 85% of inmates questioned stated that they could arrange drugs to be smuggled inside. Without preventative action, drones look set to contribute to these statistics increasingly so in the future.


Moreover, there is the obvious problem of privacy invasion associated with drone use. Whether this be through casual use in a public space, or more deliberate use for stalking.

Drones also present a threat to public safety, with the potential to strike pedestrians or cause traffic accidents through improper piloting. This may be a result of inexperience, or alternatively, may have been a deliberate action.

Following Kant’s universality principle [3] “Act only according to that maxim by which you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law” indicates that the immoral actions should be prevented for the greater good of society.

This could be achieved through stringent regulation. An example of this would be to introduce mandatory drone awareness courses, coupled with piloting tests and regular air worthiness checks. Another course of action to be considered is for drones to be registered to their owners, thus allowing for any offending users to be traced and appropriate action to be taken.

With regard to technological based solutions, GPS could be implemented to introduce ‘no-fly’ zones (such as airspace above prisons, military bases and airports). This could be enforced by making it a legal requirement to have a GPS chip installed into all registered drones, allowing the relevant authorities to track drone flight paths. If a ‘no-fly’ zone is breached, the authorities would be alerted, and investigations could then take place concerning the intent of the registered drone owner. In addition to this, if a crime is committed then it would then be possible to trace the offender to the location where it occurred.

An extension of this proposal would be to implement inbuilt overrides into drones; allowing the authorities to take control of vehicles acting in a dangerous manner. However, such technology can introduce ethical implications of its own, and potential drone users may see this as over intrusive surveillance of their location.

Following a utilitarian approach, it could be argued that more stringent regulations would be the best option as the majority of the population are not drone users, and would help prevent any incidents that may pose a threat to them, as discussed previously. However, common sense must also be applied to ensure all regulations are necessary and do not hinder the progress of this promising field that could benefit society greatly.

Condone the Drone? 

The freedom principle [4] approach pertains to the idea that everyone is free to strive for their own personal pleasure providing that the act of seeking itself does not hinder the pleasure of others. The principle can be used in this context to argue for a relaxed approach to regulation of drone use, allowing legitimate users to enjoy their hobby whilst protecting the wider public.

To answer the question debated here, a solution was proposed that the UK CAA offer pilot courses and voluntary tests in order to mitigate issues arising around the collision of improperly piloted drones. A report by Drones Direct indicates 77.4% [5]   of drone users say their primary intent for the technology is for capturing photographs although 49.3% [5] do not know about the data protection act. This act applies to the photographs and video footage they capture therefore this course should also include awareness of the laws in place that protect the privacy of the British public.



In order to mitigate issues arising with drones and prisons a plan was proposed to encourage users to register their device, enabling police to trace accountability in the case of illegal activity. An App exists from the National Air Traffic Services (NATS) [6] showing users where restricted airspace lies around commercial airports, this app should be updated to include other no-fly zones and drone users made aware of the apps existence and usefulness. Any drone caught within the restricted airspace could be identified and this person will be less able to plead ignorance of the rules around flying drones with the implementation of a good education program.

The user must know what constitutes to misuse of drones in order to obey and respect the freedom principle and this can be implemented through schools, social media and infomercials by the National Air Traffic Services, NATS.

Okay but what if someone abuses the freedom principle? Then what?

It is inevitable that someone will abuse the capabilities, so how can we track the perpetrator? It is important to minimise the misuse of this technology, it has been proven that people are more likely to commit road crime due to their anonymity on the roads so surely the same behaviour can be applied to drones.

By devising a database it would be possible to register each drone user and with a mandatory action to include GPS in all drones, this would create a record of which drone has flown where and at what time, making identification of abusers a much narrower process than before. However, this data would only be accessed in the event of suspicious activity; all drones would not be subject to around the clock surveillance due to the ethical issues surrounding such heavy surveillance.

The pursuit of self-interest as described in the Egoistic approach [7] is seen as often leading to the benefit of society. This suggests that the use of drones should be hampered as little as possible. As they have a big future for commercial applications, it is essential to encourage interest and to promote innovation in order to further the development of drones to ultimately benefit society.

Group 66: Jamie Urwin, Joe Nelson, Oliver Spenceley, Matt Place 




20 thoughts on “Stoned Drones, High in the Sky

  1. Slight technical pedantry here, but GPS chips are receivers only, and don’t transmit anything. You’d have to be transmitting the drone location by another means, such as mobile signal, or radio wave for real time enforcement of ‘no-fly zones’. Your suggestion of GPS location being saved, and is accessible when authorities request it sounds a bit too much like hard work for PC plod. Additionally drone flying courses sounds far too expensive to roll out, and the cost may inhibit people’s liberty to partake in recreation.

    Registration is completely possible, as it’s mandatory for sim cards in a lot of countries, and they’re vastly more wide-spread, thus drones ‘caught in the act’ could be easily traced back to the owner, and punishment occur.

    Disabling drones is fairly easy with a 2.4 GHz or 5 GHz signal jammer, shotgun, or even eagle ( so with training and vigilance from those whose job it is to protect airfields and prisons, we should be perfectly safe.


  2. I strongly agree that there should be some form of regulation of drone usage. Perhaps, it could be similar to that of other flying objects such as helicopters and planes. I see you have mentioned registration of a drone, and my thought would be that it could be further enforced with the Introduction of specific codes on drones that can be seen whilst in the air. This would allow them to be tracked easier to a specific owner. Furthermore, this would ensure drones in illegal area that are captured on video cctv or photograph can be quickly traced.


  3. Real good article. Drones I think are a bit polarising, they have many positive uses but I suppose like anything they can be abused. Be interesting to see how they progress in the next few years!



  4. This article is a good introduction to the issues surrounding drone use, issues such as regulation will of course need due consideration to ensure safety of the people and courses such as drone awareness and safety are simple to make and easily administered as long as there is some way to check training has been done (annually for example)

    I am concerned about the provision for a regulatory state given it was said data would not be use in certain intrusive ways (accessing web cams remotely) yet Snowden showed how frequently and nonchantly security services (NSA, MI5, MI6, GCHQ,) misuse their power in order to “protect” the people. Now everyone covers their cams with tape and are mindful of skpying and face-timing, How do the authors remedy this issue?

    My observation also is that this article neglects the potential positives of drone use, what about the use of drones to administer aid to remote or war torn countries for example? How else could it connect our globalized but increasingly unequal world? These too need consideration.


  5. Definitely in favour of more regulation on private drone usage. Particularly alarming is the issue of surveillance. Though there have been cases where footage captured by drones has been used as evidence in court to convict offenders: safeguarding issues clearly remain, particularly in reference to sex offences. We give police and security services consent to use surveillance in crime investigation and prevention but it is a step too fat to afford this to private citizens.


  6. Interesting article, I definitely think more measures should be taken to prevent drones being used with malintent. The use of GPS and ‘no-fly’ zones sounds like a good idea, but surely implementing mandatory drone awareness courses is unlikely to stop criminals from misusing drones?


  7. A very interesting piece on drones, I have to admit that their use has begun to worry me, as always seems to happen, technology intended for recreational use is abused by those who support crime. Human ingenuity always suffers from unintended consequences and the drone operators who have no criminal intentions are the ones who will have to pay for registration and education, illegal users will find a way around any registration or control.


  8. some good points raised. I do agree that there should be some regulations enforced, but as you mentioned, they are also used by the general public as a hobby. Implementing strict guidelines for all drones and requiring them to have licenses would limit their market- for example, people wouldnt be so quick to purchase one for their sons 6th birthday gift, especially if they were under the impression that this would then make them subject to surveillance.
    I do agree that some regulation is required, however this could be implemented for drone over a certain size and of which fly above a certain height, making them easy to purchase for general public use having fun with it in their back yard.
    may be wrong here but i believe that business men and women using drones for professional reasons (eg for a photography business) are required to have a license and partake in a safety course. this is something that could also be introduced to other drones users, and for owners of drones above a certain size or flight time etc. The introduction of registration for drones would also be a good idea as you stated, so that if any drones were found to be over prisons or airports, these could be seized and the owner could be tracked.


  9. As a follower of film and photography, drone usage has been something that has caught my eye over the past year or so, becoming very popular amongst online filmmakers and photographers. I believe that with them gaining popularity at such a rapid rate that there should be measures put in place that could prevent these machines being used in an illicit way.
    I also agree that putting specific laws and regulations in place would lead people to believe that their privacy / rights were being invaded; and with the technology that we already have and what is being produced in the present time, I would think it would be possible to have something such as using the GPS that is built into the drone and partnering it up with the app that is used to fly the drones, working along with the NATS “No Fly Zone” in order to show the user on the screen that they are in no fly zones, and if they are still in the no fly zone after, say, 20 seconds, the drone would have some sort of killswitch that deactivates it.


  10. An interesting article. Yes there is a great deal of benefit from the drones but do the benefits outweigh the costs? Perhaps the drones should be registered which may act as a deterrent to using them in a harmful manner?


  11. I am personally more in favour of drones than not but I strongly agree that regulations ought to be used. Unfortunately, there are always ways to go around control.


  12. There are a lot of good cases to be made for restricting drone usage, but I think it’s important to consider how drones are currently viewed and used. For a lot of people, they’re essentially toys and I imagine that imposing restrictions now on a toy that people already own would cause problems.

    From a utilitarian perspective, it’s hard to justify restricting drone usage as the overwhelming majority of people affected would be affected negatively to stop a select few from breaking the law with them. If the restrictions were carefully implemented to only affect places like prisons, however, most people would probably be willing to accept that


  13. Sound article with a well-grounded evaluation regarding ethical concerns of drones! The ‘no-fly zone’ and registration of drones is a great idea certainly to prevent misuse and hold drone-owners accountable, but it is important to ask: What is the sole-purpose of having drones in the first place, particularly in the hands of the public? …So, they can ‘fun’ with helicopter-like toys. In this particular case, implementing a safety-framework as such and deploying authorities seems senseless and bizarre, not be mention very expensive. In my opinion, drones are beneficial in three cases: military-use, commercial applications and reaching hostile/unfamiliar environment, all of which poses plethora of ethical issues worth considering. There should be stringent regulations to refrain use of drones, before exploring control/safety strategies.


  14. The issue of drones use and misuse are evident from the above and a number of reported incidents in recent news, in which drones have been involved in near misses with planes. This itself goes to show how recreational use of drones presents danger to the public. Don’t get me wrong the technology is great and have used drones at my work to take pictures and video footage to show clients their buildings progression. However, I agree that regulations need to be put in place and the registration and tracking of drones would be the first steps in the right direction. But when it comes to actual enforcement of their use it is hard to see how already stretched police forces would have the time and money. One possible solution to prevent the dangerous scenario I mentioned above could be to put regulations in place so that recreational drones can only reach a determined maximum altitude. Obviously this would impede on peoples enjoyment of the drones, but then have certifications that they have to pass to handle drones that have less restrictions.


  15. A very interesting read. I have never really considered the use of drones within society. However, after reading this post, I do think that regulations should be put in place for drone that are used recreationally.


  16. Enjoyable and intriguing read. This is definitely something that is of current interest debate. The current freedoms and views by many of the public as seeing them as “toys” suggests that people don’t fully understand the full capabilities for such technology. The fact they can be of vital importance, commercially, in the future means that there is definitely need for some sort of regulation to be implemented.

    The fact they can be used currently with so much freedom is very worrying and I think this blog highlights that very well. I think it’s definitely something that needs to be regulated soon, but not overly controlled (just yet anyway – since it’s not being used widely commercially just yet).


  17. I think that this article highlights some important issues that we face in today’s society, such as the smuggling of contraband into prisons, however I do think that the possible measures are rather unachievable. I do not think that drone users would be willing to take the time out of their day to take a course on “lawful drone usage”, however it is understandable that invasion of privacy is an issue that must be restricted in some way. It would seem the only feasible option for many reasons would be to take a reactive approach as to a proactive one.


  18. Firstly the article highlights very well what we struggle with as a society: the balance between regulating actions without hampering the creative freedom of individuals. In this case, however, I am inclined to take the side of regulating the activities carried out with drones. Yes, the technology primarily has opened up a world of photography that was exclusive to those with substantial funding but simultaneously as pointed out, it is also a mode of moving goods. For example, the post office has rules on what can and cannot be moved using the services provided (in this case illicit drugs) for safety purposes and preventing illegal activity. If the misuse of drones can bypass the rules set in place already, then I believe that regulations to register the devices in addition to imposing no-fly zones over prisons would be a step in the right direction.


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