Don't turn technophobe

Don't turn technophobe

After failing to deal with the real dangers of hot-air lanterns, the government has swung the pendulum with a huge over-reaction to aerial drones. According to the Transport Ministry, the country can expect harsh new laws, including prison sentences. In effect, drones will be banned for most uses by most people. It is a serious error that illustrates the current government's refusal to seek the opinions of both experts and the public before it acts suddenly.

The military has ordered the Civil Aviation Department of the Transport Ministry to act against drones. As outlined by director-general Somchai Phiphutwat, the new laws and regulations are draconian. The public is to be banned from flying any drones with cameras. But those most likely to oppose such a restriction will be exempted — professional media included, but not bloggers and the like.

In just a couple of years, the public's use of drones has massively increased. Flying machines such as the quadcopter have quickly developed, and are well past the "toy" stage. Internet retailers are planning to deliver millions of packages directly to homes via drones. This newspaper has used drones to photograph political marches, tourist spots and forest encroachment.

At least a dozen Thai schools are aggressively teaching students about the properties and uses of drones. Mr Somchai weakly replies that they can continue — with no cameras and prior approval for every flight, which must not last more than an hour. And now the minister of transport has claimed that bans and heavy regulation of drones are necessary because the pilotless aircraft might be used in crimes. They have national security implications, the government claims.

Like all inventions, drones can be used for criminal purposes by anti-social elements. This is no reason to ban them. One does not ban knives because they can be used in murders and mayhem. Bank robbers wear motorcycle helmets to avoid identification, so carefully written regulations came in to address the problem. A "military solution" would impose bans on motorcycle helmet sales, at least to young men.

The harsh new laws that are being proposed thus illustrate the problems that arise when the government is dominated by the military. Because of their mission, military men and women make binary decisions: attack or retreat, shoot or hold fire, permit or ban. This works in military situations but in governance, not so much.

The fast-growing research, manufacturing and use of drones requires far more thought than Transport Minister ACM Prajin Juntong has so far been willing to give. A ban on drones with cameras will hurt numerous industries as far separated as shipping and real estate, customer service and petroleum research.

It seems the Ministry of Transport and its Civil Aviation Department are determined to do the wrong thing. With the lantern balloons, the department took no action at all for years. Only when the long-predicted collision of a balloon and a civil airliner actually occurred did the Department take notice. With drone aircraft, the opposite is true. Without consultation with the industry, technology experts or the public it supposedly serves, the department is issuing unfortunate and measurably harmful bans.

Neither hot-air lanterns nor aerial drones can be allowed to fly willy-nilly in any airspace, nor should they be quickly banned. The obvious solution is carefully considered regulation of the devices, written after wide consultation with all those involved.

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