Martin Newell’s Joy of Essex: Don’t want to drone on... but gizmos are causing quite a stir


Drone - Credit: Getty Images/iStockphoto

Never the future’s biggest fan, I try to keep up with developments as best I can. Nonetheless I still sometimes feel that the pace of things has quickened lately. My colleague John Cooper Clarke once said that ancient mythology too was strewn with its problems, especially of health and safety: “A cyclops and a unicorn – now there was an accident waiting to happen.”

On Boxing Day, someone posted a film clip on a local internet forum. Just over four minutes long, it consisted of aerial views of Wivenhoe’s former shipyard, now a riverside residential area. Like an aerial reconaissance film made by a drunk, the footage was shaky, well-below broadcast quality, and dominated by a loud stuttering whirr from an electronic engine. The film had been taken by a domestic flying drone – on Christmas morning, at a guess.

Santa Claus must have delivered quite a few drones to the children this year. A growing number of us are discomfited by this fact. I’m fairly sure that the drone-owner who launched the gizmo, hadn’t meant to cause any offence. I’m willing to bet that this was simply the inaugural flight of a boy’s toy. He even attached a Merry Christmas greeting to accompany his film, which he probably posted there, to show fellow townsfolk his new Chrissy present.

He possibly wasn’t expecting the fusillade of anger and admonishment which he subsequently received. “Creepy and intrusive,” wrote one correspondent, who claimed to have witnessed the drone flying overhead the day before.

Another correspondent accused the drone-owner of not caring about “privacy issues”. Your correspondent’s first boyish instinct remained: to wonder how such a gizmo might be brought down. With another future Christmas present, perhaps: “Say goodbye to overhead drone misery with the Ack-Ack Acme Junior Flak Battery. Comes complete with 360-degree swivel seat. Suitable for most back gardens – ammunition included.”

Our resident clay-pigeon fancier asked me what drones looked like. Having had one described to her, she nodded, held up a small dinner plate and said: “Probably easy enough to blast one out of the sky.”

So far, so funny. On the serious side, however, a domestic drone costing around the £300 mark and weighing somewhere just under 2kg might make a bit of a mess of your bathroom if it suddenly plummeted through the Velux window. Nor would you enjoy the wreckage of one knocking a drinks tray out of your hands as you walked sedately across a pub garden on summer afternoon. But anyway, this is England. You can’t just go firing guns into the air as if it were some South American revolution.

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People’s responses to the increasing use of private drones, naturally, will vary. Those who prefer the teacherly, be-sandalled broadsheets, will see drones as surveillance objects; sinister gadgets used by the government and big business to further erode our already tattered civil liberties.

Then there may be a few, like myself, who view drones merely as yet more irritating electronica, whining and bleeping all around us, while we attempt to wrest back some equilibrium from an increasingly manic future.

There remains within me, however, that juvenile delinquent who thinks of drones as a challenge. As I study the pictures of them, I wonder which key component might you have to hit with a single pellet from a high-powered airgun, in order to throw their steering out-of-true? Or could you fit a small captured drone with some kind of weaponry in order to attack other drones? Because if I’m idly toying with such deviant ideas, you can bet that other, rather more practical, people are also applying themselves to the matter.

Then there are darker criminal minds, who might be able to use a drone to survey security on potential jobs. Or what about drones as electronic mini-mules taking small deliveries from drug-dealers to users? A casual trawl of information about drone usage and abusage in the US and Australia, where it’s far more common, reveals a legal bear-trap.

More than one American farmer’s solution to drones has been, “If that thang flahs over mah cattle, then Ah’m gonna shoot it down.” The Aussies, meanwhile, seem so bogged down that at last count they were considering legislation only for those drones weighing over 2kg.

The classic British solution, of course, would be simply to ban drones altogether, on pain of confiscation, heavy fines and possible jail sentences. That way, if you ever saw or heard a drone again, you’d at least be able to say with confidence: “It’s okay. It’s only the police, the military, or the government.”

Then we could all have a good moan about Big Brother and go back to sleep.