The explosion in popularity of hobbyist and consumer drones can't be denied - indeed, experts estimate that the consumer drone industry will top $1 billion in annual sales in 2018. But modern variants present something of a potential problem for superyachts, owners and guests. Complex rigs with stabilised platforms that can carry professional cameras are being supplemented with cheap, small and lightweight versions that can carry a small digital camera such as a GoPro, and while the threat of physical attack may be small, the implications for invasion of privacy could be huge.
The problem is exacerbated in two ways. First, detecting an incoming drone is incredibly difficult to do, and second even if you can detect a drone, what are you actually allowed to do to mitigate the potential threat? At the Global Superyacht Forum in November 2016 a panel of security and legal experts attempted to shed light on the challenges and possible solutions.
"Drone protection is a rather new field," says Johannes Pinl, CEO and founder of security specialists MARSS. “Three or four years ago when you specced a yacht nobody would have asked for protection against drones, but that has changed dramatically especially when we are providing security solutions and building a security shield around the yacht."
So what can be done on board to prevent the approach of a drone? “Unfortunately there is no 100 per cent solution out there yet,” Pinl continues. “There’s a lot of marketing out there claiming a solution that will solve all your drone problems, but it is wrong. Drones are small, fast, and very difficult to detect and defeat. But there is an approach to mitigate the issue.” Pinl suggests a multi-tiered approach that MARSS has proven to be effective in the detection process, involving maritime X band radar, radio frequency (RF) monitoring and finally visual confirmation through cameras.
But even assuming detection is possible, with drones able to travel a kilometre or more in 60 seconds or less you don't have much time to act. Besides. what can you actually do - does the law allow you to shoot a drone out of the sky under the auspices of legislation designed to prevent terrorist attacks or preserve personal privacy? It is here that the subject becomes somewhat blurred. “Because drones operate in the air, they are governed by aviation law,” explains Sue Barham, an aviation lawyer with Holman Fenwick Willan. "We’ve got a very fragmented system, and it depends on the national law of each country. So is a drone operating lawfully when it approaches within 100m of a yacht? It depends on where the yacht is…And below [a drone weight of 25kg] there’s a lot less regulation and a lot of the time there’s not really a lot of regulations at all, except perhaps for not operating above a certain height or within a certain distance of people or property.”
So even if a drone approaches your yacht and you can establish that it is flying illegally, can you actually do anything about it? “Apart from reporting the operator – if you can find them – to the national regulator, there’s not much,” says Barham. “The options are to look at the privacy laws which, unfortunately, also differ depending on where you are."
So what is the solution? Perhaps the safest legal way to protect yourself, your owner or your guests from the prying lens of an incoming drone is imply to take cover until the threat has past - it's hardly ideal, but it's probably the best way to avoid potential legal complications, at least until aviation or privacy laws catch up.
This article will appear in full in issue 176 of The Superyacht Report.
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