Developed for military purposes, unmanned aircraft systems, better known as “drones,” nevertheless have a wide range of civil and commercial applications. With their massive potential for civil and commercial uses, the global market for drones is growing fast. Annual worldwide civilian drone expenditures are expected to grow from 500 million US dollars in 2015 to more than 2 billion US dollars in 2023. In order to drive the growth and expansion of the commercial drone industry and to facilitate its potential benefits, many countries around the world are presenting plans for integrating drones into the national airspace systems with regulatory reform. The Korean government has also set up plans to foster the drone industry as a new convergence industry. On Nov 16, 2015, the Ministry of Trade, Industry and Energy, together with the Ministry of Science, ICT and Future Planning and the Ministry of Land, Infrastructure and Transport, announced “Achievements and Future Challenges of Regulatory Reform to Create New Convergence Industries” which addresses regulatory reform for the drone industry among others, and selected pilot project drone operators and flying zones.

On the other hand, the widespread adoption of drones also risks opening up new regulations. As drones carrying cameras, sensors and recorders raise the prospect of an extensive collection of sound, image or location information containing personal data, they bring with them concerns about privacy and personal data protection.

Under the existing framework of privacy and personal data protection, the processing (including collecting, using or transferring) of identifiable personal data is regulated by the Personal Information Protection Act (“PIPA”) and the Promotion of Information and Communications Network Utilization and Information Protection Act (“Communications Network Act”). The collecting and using of location data is controlled by the Protection and Use of Location Information Act (“Location Information Act”). However, it is not clear whether the scopes of the terms “personal data processor,” “telecommunications service provider,” and “location information business operator,” which are, respectively, subject to the regulations of the PIPA, the Communications Network Act and the Location Information Act, may cover drone operators. In particular, it would be difficult to trace the owners or pilots of small drones even if they invade privacy or violate personal data.

As attempts to address potential loopholes of the existing legal framework, it is being considered to expand the definition of “image information processing devices” under the PIPA to include drones; to specify drone operators’ personal data protection obligations in the Aviation Act; and to explicitly impose personal data protection obligations on drone operators and manufacturers.

While excessive regulations would stunt the growth in the drone industry, an effective legal framework to protect privacy and personal data would be required to ensure a responsible use of the technology. Companies related to the drone industry should keep a careful watch on further regulatory reform.