London residents may be concerned about the military sticking missiles on top of their roofs over the Olympics, but that might not be only danger from the skies at the Games.
According to Professor Robert Dewar, former Emeritus Professor at New York University and founder of software firm AdaCore, rumoured plans to use unmanned aerial drones to monitor crowds at the events could have catastrophic consequences.
He believes that there are concerns that unmanned aircraft could malfunction if the software code used in operating them is not up to a sufficiently high standard.
“We do have to worry about them falling down on somebody’s head,” he said, speaking with TechEye. “The repercussions from an accident of that kind at the Olympics would be huge, it would set back the cause for using drones for surveillance indefinitely, I would expect.”
“The consequences of misjudging it are very significant,” Dewar said. “If someone was to be injured due to a drone crashing, it would really be a major issue, and the Olympics would be remembered for that incident.”
While there has been no official confirmation that drones will be used by the police to monitor crowds during the games, there has been speculation in the press, and Dewar is concerned that without proper planning the drones could present a risk.
This is mainly down to the lack of industry recognised regulation and certification of the software code used in aircraft. Dewar thinks that before any drones are used in a civilian setting they should be tested to the industry standard with regards to the safety and reliability of software code.
According to Dewar, most drone testing has been in warzones, and in these settings there safety regulations are not considered as necessary. Before transitioning to civilian use, more time needs to be taken to ensure safety.
“There are lots of examples of software malfunctioning spectacularly,” Dewar warns. This is often down to standard industry development that is business critical rather than safety critical.
While one might expect Windows to crash every now and again, he contends, the implications for aircraft are – obviously – much more serious.
“We take it for granted that all manned aircraft needs that level of care,” Dewar said, “so what is the argument for being less rigorous in the case of unmanned aircraft?”
In the USA, although there is interest for using drones for policing applications, the government will not authorise them until they have met clearance from the regulatory body, the FAA. In the UK, so far, there has been no commitment to meeting regulations put forward by the Civil Aviation Authority.
“In the States the FAA have taken a very adamant position that these things are not going to fly around in commercial airspace unless the software is certified,” Dewar said, “and unless the hardware is tested to the standards of commercial hardware.”
“Unless that software goes through the same rigorous regulation that other aircraft would go through, it is hard to trust that it is completely reliable,” he said.
UK police trials have not always been successful, according to Dewar.
“In one case they managed to lose one in a river, and never found it again,” he said. “You have to wonder that if a drone could fall in a river, it could fall on someone’s head.”
“The Olympics is far too early to be considering this technology,” Dewar said. “I think we have an important discussion and debate to occur over the next few years of all the implications of using drones”.