November 1, 2018

Drone displays could replace firework shows – but are they any safer?

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It’s nearly Guy Fawkes Night, in which (as many will be aware) we celebrate the fact that Parliament was not blown up by Guy Fawkes in 1605 by letting off fireworks, presumably to show that blowing things up can be an act of celebration rather than of violence. However, firework-related injuries are on the rise, with Huffpost revealing that 4,506 people visited A&E in the year 2014-2015 for treatment - a 111% increase from those injuries reported in 2009-2010. But what are the alternatives for people who still want to celebrate with a spectacular light show but also want to avoid the risk of injury?

The answer has recently come in the form of drone displays, in which hundreds of lit up drones can be deployed simultaneously to create spectacular formations. The companies that put on these events claim that the drones can be operated by one person, and that the drones are both more environmentally friendly and safer than fireworks. This is because fireworks create air pollution, as well as contaminate the soil when the chemicals they contain hit the ground. Plus, fireworks can only be used once, whereas drones are re-usable for multiple displays.

Are drones likely to stop all injury from outdoor displays?

The risks inherent in setting off fireworks are self-evident; anything you light on fire and set off into the air with a loud bang carries the risk of burns and deafness at best, and at worst amputation, or even death.

However, drones are also not without risk. They are fairly straightforward to hack, meaning that someone could take control of any number of drones in a display and use them as weapons, difficult to trace and relatively straightforward to obtain.

There’s also the risk of drones falling out of the sky; only a few days ago, a drone display was cancelled at the Hong Kong Wine and Dine festival because the GPS signal was blocked, causing several of them to fall into the harbour. Fortunately no-one was injured in this incident, but it did cause HK$1 million worth of damage, and is not difficult to see that this presents a serious risk to bystanders, especially as machines capable of jamming a drone are available for as little as US$14.

Nonetheless, it must be acknowledged that even considering these risks, it is far simpler to make drones safer than it is fireworks. At Intel’s 500 drone light display in 2016, the drones weighed less than a softball, were made of flexible plastic and the propellers were covered by a cage to ensure injury was avoided. What is more, with no combustible element on the most basic level the drone will always be safer than a firework. On the face of it, then, it would seem that drone displays are a safer and equally exciting alternative to fireworks.

So, what happens when drones do go wrong?

The problem arises in the event that something does go wrong. If someone is injured during a firework display, it will either be an issue of a faulty firework, in which case a defective product compensation claim can be brought, or it will be user fault or negligence, and in most cases the large cost of putting on a firework display is sunk into extensive insurance policies. The situation is more nuanced when it comes to drones.

While a claim can be brought against the drone manufacturer if a drone is deemed faulty, and drones for commercial use must be properly insured, if injury occurs due to a blocked GPS signal or hacking incident there is very little that can be done to trace the perpetrator. Further, even if they can be found, it is unlikely that an individual would have sufficiently deep pockets to provide adequate compensation for any injury.

Given the public nature of a drone display, it is not beyond the realms of possibility for an onlooker to be completely anonymous in jamming or hacking the signal.

There are many advantages to drone displays over firework displays: they are safer, cleaner, quieter and just as impressive as, if not more than, a traditional firework show. However, they are not entirely without risk of injury, and the remote nature of how drones are controlled make it much more difficult to establish liability should things go wrong.

Despite these grey areas, we are likely to see an increase in these types of displays as the technology continues to develop, not least because of their capacity to create stunning imagery while being operated by only one person.

If you're interested in drones, and how the law applies to them, why not listen to our Ahead of the Curve podcast episode with Philip Banks-Welsh of our drone law team:

Technology has the power to change the way we view personal injury.

Read more about PI tech right here.

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