A group of women living in a rural setting near Port Lincoln on South Australia’s Eyre Peninsula have been woken at night by a drone looking into their homes.
Police are yet to find the offender, and some of the women have told the ABC they are living in constant fear of another visit which usually happens late at night or very early morning.
One of the women, who like the rest of the group did not want to be identified, was asleep and alone at home on her relatively remote hobby farm.
She was woken by a bang on her bedroom window and when she looked out into the darkness was confronted by a camera attached to a drone, hovering within centimetres of her window.
“I feel violated, feel it’s intrusive and feel scared, intimidated,” she said.
With a partner often away on a FIFO job, the 39-year-old says she is forced to keep her curtains drawn.
She has spoken of the profound changes that being stalked in this manner has brought to her previously peaceful life.
It is at the point where two of the stalked women no longer shower at night for fear of being filmed.
Another drone-stalked woman has told the ABC of the anxiety and panic she’s now experiencing at night.
“You’ll hear a noise and even if it’s not a drone you just get paranoid,” the 40-year-old said.
“It’s got the point where I now sleep with a large wooden bat in my bed.”
Local police have issued a warning that drones cannot be used at night and they cannot be within 30 meters of people.
They said complaints can be made on the Civil Aviation Safety Authority (CASA) website.
Inquiry foreshadows tougher laws
What is happening to the group of women is symbolic of a broader problem facing regulators of an emerging technology that has the potential to do incredible good and incredible harm.
Western Australian Labor Senator Glenn Sterle is chair of a Senate inquiry into drone usage.
While the committee is not due to report until December, Senator Sterle says it is inevitable there will be recommendations for much tougher regulation of drones.
“We’ve been inundated with examples of drones falling onto the Sydney Harbour Bridge, landing on cars, being used for surveillance through people’s windows, zapping around public spaces,” he said.
“There’s been 170-180 interactions between aircraft around airports in the last 12 months. Hence it’s been a rather interesting inquiry.”
Among myriad concerns is the potential for a rogue drone operator to attack at a public event — given their ability to release potentially dangerous materials from a height.
“In the wrong hands what could that do over the MCG on a Grand Final day?” said Senator Sterle.
“Now I know it sounds alarmist but this is the sort of stuff that we as a nation should be absolutely forefront in our minds.
“We can’t even tell who even owns these drones, that is the problem. There is no compulsory requirement that these things are identifiable.”
Another issue is the potential use of drones by criminals to stake-out people’s houses.
Corrective Services NSW has labelled drones an emerging issue, with a recent case at Lithgow prison in which a drone was caught on CCTV dropping what appears to be contraband.
Senator Sterle recognises the value of drones in the right hands.
“Firefighting, sea search and rescue and agriculture — no problem — we want to support that part of the drone requirements,” he said.
“But by the same token we cannot put our hand over one eye and say ‘she’ll be right, nothing to see here, move along’.”
CASA tightening up
One organisation receiving flak for the regulation, or lack of regulation, of drones has been the Civil Aviation Safety Authority.
CASA spokesman Peter Gibson counters by saying the authority has recently toughened up drone regulations in response to community concerns.
He said Australia has been a world leader in drone safety regulation and CASA is running a complete review of drone safety rules which could see even tougher requirements.
“Get the balance right between protecting public safety, at the same time not in any way trying to put undue constraints on what is a growing industry in its own right,” Mr Gibson said.
“People get a lot of fun out of flying their drones.”
A similar argument for balance comes from Australia’s peak body covering the operation of drones, or unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs).
The president of the Australian Certified UAV Operators Association, Joe Urli, said it is not just a regulation issue for CASA, but for police and local councils.
“The sheer number of drones that are being imported and operating in Australia is increasing,” he said.
“People are using them now to transport contraband into prisons and possibly weapons into prisons, so there’s many areas that are affected by this technology.”
Back on Eyre Peninsula, one of the drone-stalked women said she backs a tougher approach to an issue that has been deeply affecting her life.
“I just want to go back to not being scared in my own house anymore,” she said.