Drones are everywhere. Filmmakers use them in Hollywood, fire-fighters use them to estimate the size of a forest fire, they rescue people from drowning and guard rail cargo. In the future drones are predicted to act as couriers and deliver parcels. We may be facing a turning point in the commercial use of drones. However, American federal law is currently very conservative in this respect, and American firms have to test the use of drones outside the USA. Will European law allow the broader commercial use of drones?
Security seems to be the biggest issue. We often hear about the dangers of drones flying too close to airports. So far this has been the action of irresponsible owners, not terrorists. But recently, after one such incident, Warsaw’s airport announced it is considering installing equipment which would disable drones in the proximity of the airport.
Most drones use the 2.4 GHz frequency, which is also popular for wi-fi. According to experts this can lead to interference. Communication with drones is usually unencrypted, making them vulnerable to thieves, or in a worst-case scenario, to terrorists.
Even if not used by terrorists, drones may be a dangerous tool in the hands of stalkers. As current technology easily enables uploads to the internet, privacy infringement may be a more immediate concern.
What answers does Polish and EU law have?
Polish aviation law differentiates between commercial drone flights and other types of drone flights. Operators of commercial drone flights must have a certificate from the Civil Aviation Authority, which is issued to persons who have had a medical check-up, passed an exam and have insurance. Additional requirements apply if a drone’s weight exceeds 25 kg and the drone flies out of the sight of the operator. Drones cannot fly within a certain proximity to an airport (so-called ‘control terminal area’, CTR) which sometimes covers most of a town or city, e.g. in Warsaw. Illegally flying in a CTR can incur a prison sentence of up to 5 years, or even 8 years if it could cause a crash.
Drones’ use of frequencies for communication makes them subject to telecommunications law. Most drones use frequencies which do not require licence, e.g. 2.4 GHz for operator communication and 5.8 GHz for image transfers, but if other frequencies are used a licence is required. An operator who flies a drone without a licence can incur a financial penalty or, in extreme situations, imprisonment of up to 2 years.
The biggest problem is the absence of personal data protection and privacy laws concerning the use of drones. Generally, filming and keeping recordings is allowed if it is done for personal purposes. But if the flight is above someone’s property it may constitute an infringement of personal rights, and the injured person may file a lawsuit against the intruder.
The European Commission stresses the importance of the drone industry for the European economy, and wants to include drones in the civil aviation system. The European Commission’s approach to drones is far more liberal than that of the US authorities.
The guiding principle is that new EU regulations, which are currently under discussion, should not constrain the development of this sector. European law should apply to all drones, and not only to those whose weight exceeds 150 kg – as currently. The categorisation of drones should not depend on their weight, but their purpose. The new drone law should contain comprehensive regulations of personal data and privacy issues.
The proposal for the new regulations should be ready by the end of 2015.