Cayman Islands residents and visitors may perk up and listen for a faint and slightly irritating buzzing sound, one destined to become more familiar over time. When you hear it, look skyward for a glimpse into the future.
It may come from a growing swarm of drones. They’re little flying machines, miniature fixed-wing or rotor-wing model aircraft without pilots that have been taking on a remarkable range of tasks lately. And clouds of them seem to be approaching Cayman faster than some other parts of the world.
Proponents welcome the new prosperity they may bring some forward-thinkers on island, and even say an active drone industry in Cayman will contribute to the way we understand our environment, make us safer and provide an economic boost. But a skeptical few warn that more drones might also introduce new threats to life here, including danger to life and limb as well as breaches of personal privacy.
Last month the Civil Aviation Authority laid out its rules and regulations for the operation of Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs).
Alastair Robertson, director of air navigation services regulation at the CAA, said businesses that want to use drones have to satisfy the Authority that they are a “fit and proper organization” that knows how to safely operate the aircraft.
He said there are numerous potential applications for drones, but the CAA needs to ensure that anyone operating in Cayman’s air space does so safely.
“We recognize the vast improvements in technology that make these things potentially much more useful than they used to be. We are open minded, but the bottom line for us is safety,” he said. “If someone demonstrates that they can operate [the aircraft] safely, then we will consider it.”
There is no official requirement for formal training to operate drones, but the CAA indicates that they would prefer to see evidence that applicants have completed a course. The authority also recently granted a license on a one-time basis to the Department of Environment to conduct survey work, with a drone operated by an experienced visiting specialist.
Business and technology observers have been speculating on how far-flung a newly popular way of observing the earth’s surface may become in the next few years.
One observer, Michael Leasure, an associate professor at Purdue University, who teaches and studies the dynamics of drones, believes governments, profit-seeking enterprises and even criminals will find thousands of uses for what a few years ago were either highly secret and sophisticated weapon systems used in warfare or expensive toys for early-adopting hobbyists.
Leasure, a pilot and aeronautics expert, says he himself is such a hobbyist. “I’ve been flying model airplanes, which are pretty similar, for 40 years,” he said.
Speaking from his university office in Indiana, Leasure quickly listed businesses and professions that are or soon will embrace drones. “In science and research, you’ve got monitoring algae blooms and coral reefs and certainly weather and climate studies. You’ve got tremendous opportunities in agriculture, and there’s surveillance, search and rescue and police force applications.”
He has even become involved in a business outside his academic career: disability fraud. Investigators with covert cameras have always sought proof that some people claiming job-related disabilities might in fact be able-bodied. “But this is a perfect way to get evidence of people who have falsely made these claims.” He describes a case in which drone video caught a former worker who was thought to be confined to a wheelchair standing and cleaning his backyard swimming pool.
Leasure is a great believer that while the industry using ground-controlled flying machines is still in its infancy, it has the capacity to grow to tens, even hundreds of billions of dollars in the foreseeable future. He said the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration is “working as hard as it can to get industry regulations out so businesses can launch and grow.”
Drones in Cayman
Cayman has already published its regulations. That’s why as the islands begin to witness wisps of drones hovering about, it’s become clear that what are only occasional sightings today are likely to become routine in the future.
The first remotely controlled miniature aircraft here in recent years have been under the shaky control of hobbyists with joysticks. A modest drone with controls and camera sells online for less than $100.
Grand Cayman and its surroundings make a beautiful visual backdrop, so small drones have become dramatic extensions of what both tourists and locals do with cellphone cameras: take photos and video of the sea, the sky, the shore and their friends. With a small drone, you can generate sweeping views of the islands and its people from ground level to 400 feet in the air.
More robust, higher quality models cost between $500 and upwards of $1,200. Good ones have greater range and dependability, and features that include connections to the operator’s smartphone, so the person at the controls can see live video shot from a model plane a mile or two away and as high as a tall hotel.
This summer, a commercial outfit, AirVu, received Cayman certification from the CAA and began gearing up operations. It’s a newly established enterprise that has humming helicopter-like vehicles already working the local skies.
So far, they’re mostly taking photos and videos for real estate brokers and investors, shooting footage for resorts and cruise ships, checking traffic and collecting data.
AirVu’s CEO, Adam Cockerill, says more aircraft are on the way, along with more companies like his, aimed at lower-cost surveillance. Pilots in single-engine planes cost much more. It will add up to more buzz from the sky.
To assure an adequate level of public safety throughout the world, both governments and businesses are having to develop systems to monitor the air space closer to ground, where drones fly. To operate ethically, the industry and its regulations also must have ways to protect people’s privacy. As it stands, any relatively quiet flying vehicle with a camera may abuse someone’s privacy from aloft.
National and international law-making bodies the world over have had to begin addressing how rules and regulations might protect citizens from not only peeping Toms and unsafe operations, but also possible criminal invasion into their private lives.
Legal forums are digging into these questions regularly now. Examining the implications of drone use has become its own worldwide growth industry.
Cockerill frequently expresses concern about responsible UAV operation, certification and requirements of sufficient liability insurance to cover mishaps. He points out that anyone who operates the drones should keep skills up-to-date and hardware in tip-top shape.
Cockerill hopes the new hobbyists and any competing commercial operators learn safe and responsible operating skills. He worked for a year with the CAA in developing rules over UAV use in Cayman. He also spent time in America earning a U.S. certification as a drone operator – for safety purposes. “That’s a huge issue,” he says.
As Cayman’s CAA has considered over the last year, an errant 8-pound, six-rotor aircraft, typical of what a commercial enterprise might use for aerial photography, could cause tragic results if it crashed onto a golf foursome or water-side happy hour.
A similar unit could also do crippling damage to a jet engine as a commercial airliner descends onto a runway or begins its ascent on a trip off island. The CAA wants drones nowhere near the airport. But even a bump between a big drone and a Grand Cayman mosquito plane could cause a big problem.
Drone advocates worldwide predict a coming era of new ways to employ UAVs that will fly in improvements to our lives. Aside from getting a fresh flow of images of our surroundings, people also may expect fast, customized delivery of packages via drones in the near future. Major delivery services in Europe and the United States are already testing the waters. Amazon has made public displays of how it might fly books and other small items to individual homes.
Plus, you can expect more commercial and scientific enterprises to bring their drones and skilled operators here to monitor ocean and coral reef quality and the health of Caribbean fisheries. Tiny aircraft laden with hurricane and other weather-related monitoring technology is also likely to flood the airspace near Cayman, allowing climate researchers to gather untold data about developing storms and changes in weather patterns.
The National Hurricane Center in Miami already has begun employing drones in many research applications. The Caribbean and equatorial Atlantic Ocean are principal sites for their use as forecasting and research tools leading to earlier and more accurate forecasting models to save lives.
Beyond that, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security announced that it has begun deploying its own fleet of UAVs to watch Western Caribbean waters for both drug-trafficking speed boats and vessels possibly moving unauthorized immigrants toward the U.S.
The CIA and the American military have been using drones for surveillance, largely in other parts of the world. This month the Navy released information about and photos of its successful tests of an X-47B unmanned combat aircraft working in concert with conventional piloted jet fighters flying on and off the deck of aircraft carriers. The stealth-shaped and -equipped jet-powered drone would be an ideal surveillance tool along America’s southern border. And this model is equipped for taking ultra-high-resolution pictures from far out of sight and hearing distance. No pilot, no buzz, no radar profile.
With the Cayman Islands only a few hundred miles from America’s southern coasts, it may be very nearly in the cross hairs of the approaching drone revolution.
Today, the most sophisticated UAVs are marvels of technology, some programmed to respond to their changing environment as they proceed and shift the kinds of data they gather as conditions change. The U.S. Weather Service has promised that its climate- and hurricane-sensing devices will be laden with artificial intelligence allowing them to scoop up atmospheric data never before gathered.
The market for drones (as toys and as commercial and scientific tools) is growing. Manufacturers are finding new, specialized fields to examine using flying machines.