Drones, technically known as unmanned aerial systems or UAS, are fast becoming the must-have gadget for technophiles and hobbyists, offering a relatively inexpensive thrill from something that can be ordered online and delivered to their door in a few days. In the United Arab Emirates, we’ve seen a sharp increase in consumer demand for drones—a trend that is not being overlooked by the manufacturing sector. In fact, the UAE is on its way to becoming a significant manufacturer and exporter of drones, as several companies have already begun manufacturing them. It is in this vein that the office of H.H. Sheikh Mohammed Bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Prime Minister and Ruler of Dubai, introduced the “UAE Drones For Good Award” last year to promote the design of consumer drone technology in the UAE.

But, as more drones hit the airspace in the UAE, there are many issues of which drone operators, both hobbyists and commercial users, must be aware. Some of these issues are general in nature, albeit crucial, which include safety, privacy, and security issues surrounding their use. For example, an individual’s right to private life in the UAE is considered paramount, with various protections enshrined across a number of UAE laws. The photography and filming of others without consent is frowned upon and is generally not allowed in the UAE by law. Furthermore, any injury to the public or property damage caused by a drone can create liability for a drone operator, which may include paying compensation to the victim under various sections of the UAE Civil Code.

More specifically, the General Civil Aviation Authority (GCAA) of the United Arab Emirates has recently passed a new regulation on the use of drones, the UAS Regulation. The UAS Regulation imposes various obligations on drone operators. Here are some of the key provisions addressed in the Regulation:

  • Seeking to fly a drone? Obtain approval. All drones weighing more than 0.5 kg must be registered with the GCAA. The UAS Regulation treats drones differently according to their size, where size is determined by mass. More stringent regulations apply to larger drones, and drones for commercial use in the UAE also require additional approvals.
  • Safety guidelines. Drone operators must ensure that they comply with the existing regulatory regime for their use and follow the relevant safety guidelines. The UAS Regulation assigns the drone operator with the ultimate responsibility to make sure that all of the system’s components are in working order prior to use. The drone has to stay within the sight of the person flying it, and may not fly it higher than 400 feet above ground level. Also, UAS operation should only be done in daylight.
  • Privacy Safeguards. Various associated legal issues must be carefully considered when operating drones. For example, a drone may be equipped with video functionality; however, the UAS Regulation protects privacy by prohibiting the use of video or any image capturing devices for private operators, and requires prior authorization by the GCAA for commercial operators. Additionally, the UAS Regulation prohibits flights of private drones over public or private properties.
  • Flying restrictions. The UAS Regulation restricts the use of drones to segregated areas approved by the GCAA, and at all times away from conventionally controlled airspace such as airports, airfields, heliports, and helicopter landing sites. It also protects the safety of third parties and their property by restricting the private use of drones within close proximity to any person, vessel, vehicle, or structure.
  • Accident Reporting. Drone operators are responsible for collisions with people, objects, or other aircraft. Accidents involving the operation of UAS must be immediately reported to the GCAA.

Key Takeaway

Drone operators in the UAE are well advised to be aware of the existing legal regime and the legal implications of their actions. Businesses that want to take advantage of the commercial opportunities drones offer should work with their legal advisors to comply with current legal requirements and to plan for inevitable, future legal developments. There is little doubt that the UAE authorities plan to develop a more clearly defined regulatory landscape that should have a positive effect on the personal use of drones, as well as the commercial development of its domestic drone industry.

Given the potential growth of the industry in the region, other Gulf Cooperation Council countries are likely to follow the lead of the UAE and introduce their own specific regulations on drone usage.