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Making sense of drone regulations

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Authorities demand regulation for and supervision of the increasing use of drones, because of privacy, safety and security issues. Drone operators must be aware of this.

While unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV) – also known as drones – are indisputably useful for civilians, the technology has an increasing public relations problem. For example, UK pilots were calling for research into what would happen if a UAV hit an airliner, after 23 near-misses around UK airports in six months during 2015. In Japan, UAVs equipped with a net have been developed to capture rogue UAVs that might threaten disruptions along flight paths. And the Dutch police are experimenting with trained eagles to take unwanted UAVs out of the sky.

Some people are wary of drones due to the technology's association with lethal military technology. Others have seen recent news reports describing the reckless and indiscreet use of UAVs by civilians, from paparazzi drones to unauthorized UAVs flights over tourist hot-spots. These incidents have made governments and citizens around the world raise serious concerns about leaving the technology unregulated.

The debate about UAV regulation also concerns developing countries. Some nations, like South Africa, have already implemented regulations on the use of the technology by civilians, while others, like Kenya, have banned the use of UAVs without explicit permission from authorities. Several small island developing states in the Pacific have adopted the regulations formulated by their bigger, more developed neighbours. That is the case for Samoa and Tonga, for example, who follow the UAV laws of New Zealand. Still, many developing countries have no provision at all when it comes to the use of this technology by civilians.

Why rules and standards are necessary

One of the fundamental prerequisites for the use of small UAVs in public airspace is the existence of harmonised rules, in particular for UAV operators. These rules should pertain to safety and training, facilitate cross-country recognition of aircraft and pilot certification. Furthermore, such regulations should be combined with appropriate provisions for the protection of public privacy, data protection, liability and insurance. UAV rules also need standards that apply to both private and commercial use, covering issues such as the identification of types of small UAVs, and development of technologies that can prevent hackers or third parties from taking control of the devices while they are in the air. Clear and concise guidance material, customs procedures, simplified regulations, and readily available online forms and information products, like maps that show where it is allowed or not to use UAVs, could all help to succeed in reducing risks for operators.

The increasing commercial exploitation of smaller drones will require further, specific adjustments, such as limitations on third-party liability, the introduction of UAV weight categories below 500 kilograms, and adjustments to the risk levels that are associated with the flight characteristics of very small UAVs. Some concerns with UAVs are not new: the protection of fundamental civilian rights, such as the privacy of images and data, was already an issue with the use of manned aircraft and helicopters. In this context UAVs represent an increase in the scale of aerial data collection – a new challenge when it comes to strengthening and managing the legal protection of privacy rights and both personal and business data.

The international discussion about regulation of the commercial application of UAVs formally began in 2007 with the creation of an unmanned aerial system study group within the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO). The study group brought to the table several member states and aviation management organizations. In 2011 the study group produced a circular 328, followed in 2015 by a manual on unmanned aircraft systems and proposed amendments to national civil aviation laws.

ICAO's current coordination efforts in the international arena focus almost exclusively on the large remotely-piloted aircrafts used for trans-boundary missions and not on the smaller UAVs. However, much of the material that was prepared by the study group is useful to develop country-specific and regionally relevant regulations for small UAVs under 500 kilograms and with visual line-of-sight operations, as Leslie Cary, who manages ICAO’s programme on drones, said at the Remotely Piloted Aircraft Systems Symposium in March 2015.

The European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) has been tasked by the European Commission to develop a regulatory framework for drone operations and proposals for the regulation of civil, low-risk drone operations. In achieving this, EASA is working closely with the Joint Authorities for Rulemaking of Unmanned Systems (JARUS), which is producing guidelines that should serve the UAV governance of the national airspaces.

Regulations in ACP countries

Research led by the Technical Centre for Agricultural and Rural Cooperation (CTA) recently examined the current state of drone-related regulations in the African, Caribbean and Pacific (ACP) group of states. It revealed several distinct categories of responses to the drone issue. Indeed, ICAO member states use the organisation's standards and recommended practices and other guidance material to develop their own regulations.

South Africa in particular has implemented and now enforces a comprehensive set of legally-bound rules governing UAVs, placing it among the small group of nations that have working regulations. Others, like Senegal and Kenya, have banned the civilian use of drones or specific airborne tools, such as cameras, although they have amended their aviation laws with drone-related provisions developed by ICAO. Others, like Chad and Gabon, still left notes in their newly updated aviation laws stating that international norms still need to be established on specifics such as certification, licensing and aircraft types. Others have created a variety of forms, guides and information products, and sometimes have simply adopted the UAV rules of another country, without any official amendments to their aviation laws.

In emergency situations, like post cyclone Vanuatu, drones have been used on Efate and Tanna islands for reconnaissance and damage assessment purposes with the endorsement of the government, but in the absence of a legal framework and specific rules. Thus, it appears that the question is no longer whether, but how and when the integration of UAVs into existing forms of aviation will take place. When rules are unclear, professional small UAV operators working in agriculture or natural resource management should use common sense and follow diligence: have an operator permit, documentation and registration for the aircraft and the instrument used, and seek approval from local authorities. Ideally they also should seek approval from customs and national transport agencies.

Emerging UAV expertise

Tackling safety and privacy issues together with the adoption of harmonised relevant regulation will play a crucial role in the public acceptance of civilian drone technology, and the role of ICAO and JARUS is instrumental in developing the appropriate standards and recommended practices. Regional coordination efforts could spur further harmonisation of national operating rules, licences and certification between neighbouring countries. By doing this they could help the spread of commercial applications and facilitate the growth of regional enterprises and expertise on UAV technology.

ACP countries looking to regulate the technology should consult with professional operators and users of drones to ensure that UAVs’ user cases are well defined and their authorisation streamlined for the relevant activities within the individual countries.

Related links

Website of the Joint Authorities for Rulemaking on Unmanned Systems (JARUS).

ICAO study of legal issues relating to remotely piloted aircraft (2015):

Webpage of the South Africa Civil Aviation Authority on UAVs:

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Authorities demand regulation for and supervision of the increasing use of drones, because of privacy, safety and security issues. Drone operators must be aware of this.

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