A. Are There Any Drone Regulations?
The People’s Republic of China (“PRC”) currently lacks comprehensive laws or administrative regulations regarding drones at the national level. An administrative regulation proposal on drone administration was put forward for public consultation by the State Council and the PRC Central Military Commission in January 2018, but has not yet come into force (“Interim Administrative Measures on the Operation of Unmanned Aircrafts (Proposed Draft)”, 《无人驾驶航空器飞行管理暂行条例（征求意见稿）》, “Proposed Measures”).
There are, however, many sets of scattered documents and local rules published by various administrative organs or local authorities, each considering themselves in charge of monitoring drone use. Some local governments have published local rules regulating the flying of drones in their administrative areas. The Civil Aviation Administration of China (中国民用航空局, “CAAC”), the aviation authority under the PRC Ministry of Transport, also considers itself the most suitable authoritative organ to administrate drones, and has published several “normative documents” (“规范性文件”) concerning drone use, drone traffic control and drone pilots.
These normative documents can be examined in detail to help amateur drone players and professional users comply with Chinese laws, regulations, rules and orders. It is important to remember, however, that compared with laws enacted by the National People’s Congress or its Standing Committee1, or “administrative regulations” (“行政法规”) which must be formulated by the State Council with authorization from the National People’s Congress2, these “normative documents” have a much lower status and face more difficulties when it comes to their actual enforcement. This is because while these documents are said to be applicable nationwide, apart from airports and airlines, the CAAC does not have actual legal enforcement or supervisory powers against other persons or in other areas. For example, most of the regulatory or administrative organs nationally or locally, such as police, the military and PRC Customs, do not have an obligation to follow or enforce these documents. Those administrative bodies may also enact their own drone rules when they think the management of such devices has also come into their regulatory scope.
B. CAAC Normative Documents
There are currently five main CAAC normative documents (“Normative Documents”) concerning drones that are effective, as follows:
- Interim Provisions on the Operation of Miniature and Small Unmanned Aircraft (《轻小无人机运行规定（试行）》, No. AC-91-FS-2015-31), an advisory notice published on 29 December 2015;
- Management Provisions on Civilian Unmanned Aircraft Pilots (《民用无人机驾驶员管理规定》, No. AC-61-FS-2018-20R2), an advisory notice published on 31 August 2018;
- Management Provisions on the Air Traffic of Civilian Unmanned Aircraft Systems (《民用无人驾驶航空器系统空中交通管理办法》, No. MD-TM-2016-0004), a management document published on 21 September 2016;
- Management Provisions on Real Name Registration of Unmanned Civil Aircrafts (《民用无人驾驶航空器实名制登记管理规定》, No. AP-45-AA-2017-03), an aviation procedure published on 16 May 2017; and
- Interim Provisions on the Management of Commercial Flight Activities by Civilian Unmanned Aircrafts (《民用无人驾驶航空器经营性飞行活动管理办法（暂行）》, No. MD-TR-2018-01), a management document published on 21 March 2018, coming into force on 1 June 2018.
The above advisory notices, aviation procedure and management documents are different types of normative documents issued by the CAAC in accordance with its departmental rules. As mentioned above, although the CAAC is a state organ, their normative documents are not easily enforceable nationwide and may be challenged in court.
In the Normative Documents, the CAAC divides drones into different classes according to their drone weight, maximum takeoff weight, functions and visual line of sight (“VLOS”) operation capability. VLOS operation is understood to be keeping a drone operating within the visual sight of the drone pilot at all times, not flying them beyond visible distance, into clouds or fog, or behind any obstructive objects. VLOS distance is not to exceed 500 meters horizontally and 120 meters vertically from the pilot at all times3.
(When a drone can be put into more than one class, the higher class should always be used. For the full classification table, see Article 5.1(c), AC-61-FS-2018-20R2).
According to the current CAAC Normative Documents, no prior CAAC assessment and approval is required for the flying of drones only when all of the following conditions are satisfied:
- Being outside no-fly zones
- Use of a civilian drone with maximum take-off weight of 7kg or less
- VLOS operation in good weather conditions only
- Daytime use
- Flight speed of no more than 120 km/hour
- Drone equipment has passed all product quality requirements
- Pilot has obtained any required qualifications
- Unmanned aircraft system checks completed before flying
- No impacts on ground personnel, facilities, environment and social safety and
- All of the above conditions are maintained during flights.4
For drone flights which require prior CAAC approval, applications must be made at CAAC regional administration offices, which will make an assessment in accordance with the Normative Documents and limit flight activities within permitted airspace as considered necessary5. Drone operators must also purchase insurance to cover any potential liability regarding third parties on the ground6.
For Class III drones and above (for the classification, see the table above), Normative Documents also set down stricter rules before they are allowed to get to air. Such drones must install geofencing systems and flight data recording systems (and with all flight data stored for at least three months), connected to an unmanned aerial vehicle cloud system (or if not, with clear means of identification and contact details in the event of any accidents)7. For Class VI unmanned airships, they need to be at least 30 meters away from crowds (if crowds move towards the airships, the airships must be kept at least 10 meters above and away from them at all times), and no flammable gases such as hydrogen may be used8.
For required drone pilot qualifications, pilots operating Class I & II drones or “those which are experimenting in empty, densely populated areas” do not need licenses, but pilots operating drones of Class III and above are required to have a license issued by CAAC9.
Since June 1, 2017, Normative Documents also require owners of civilian drones weighing 250g or above to complete online registration at the Real Name Registration of Unmanned Aircrafts System, providing their name, personal ID card or passport number, mobile phone number, email, drone model and serial number. Companies that own drones are also required to make similar registrations in the system. After completion of registration, a registration number will be automatically generated and the owner is required to paste the number on the body of the drone10.
Finally, starting June 1, 2018, any business activity involving the use of drones weighing 250g or above (such as aerial application, photography and performances, but excluding passenger or cargo carriage) also requires a license. Such commercial activities can only be provided by legal entities which have obtained the CAAC’s approval after submission of relevant documents through the “Civilian Unmanned Aircraft Business License Management System”, and they should report each commercial activity within 72 hours of completion11.
C. Local Rules and Other Controls
Local governments also issue rules and notices regarding the use of drones at certain times or areas. For example, the Beijing Public Security Bureau usually issues official public announcements that prohibit the flying of drones in the entire Beijing municipality during the annual National People’s Congress meetings (usually two weeks in early March)12. For the rest of the year, drones are forbidden within Beijing’s Sixth Ring Road, which covers the whole central city region within 30 kilometers from Tiananmen Square.
The other parts of the country outside the capital usually have less restrictive measures concerning drones, and most provinces and cities have never formally published public notices or passed local regulations concerning the use of drones. Some local authorities, such as those in Sichuan, have issued local legislation and published restrictive fly zones13 following several disruptive events. Such restrictions generally apply to areas surrounding airports, military bases and prisons. Those regulations, however, are often very vague, and government authorities can always impose temporary air control.
Some drone manufacturers will program their own area limits that prohibit movement in sensitive areas. DJI, the world’s largest drone maker, for example, sets its own fly zones for users. DJI’s Fly Safe GEO Zone Map can be found online. While the system implements local legislation in countries where there are already clearly outlined no-fly zones, such restrictive areas in China are usually set out by DJI following consultation and discussions with local governments, or widely recommended general parameters (e.g. 1.5-mile radius around airports). A search on DJI’s map shows that while there are not too many restricted areas in most Chinese cities, most of the Beijing area has been cordoned off. This means that a DJI drone, which is always GPS located, will not be able to take off in that area under normal circumstances.
For special drone events, organizers may best want to directly contact the Civil Aviation Administration of China and local governments to inquire about permitted use of air space. Many successful applications have been made in the past for purposes such as filmmaking, mapping, and data collection, among other items. Administrative application procedures are often time consuming in China, and rules are constantly changing and are written and interpreted differently from city to city and province14.
D. Proposed Changes
From the above, we can see that all these governmental rules at the central and local levels can all seem a bit complicated. Professional and private drone users should all abide by the above rules, but the reality is that many will find it difficult to be strictly compliant at all times. For example, the distances, and size and weight of miniature drones in Classes I & II are constantly improving. Therefore although most of the civilian drones today are less than 7kg in takeoff weight, with the capacity to operate BVLOS they are strictly all Class VII drones which require prior CAAC assessment before each flight. This in reality is never (nor possible to be) abided by any amateur enthusiasts. It is even more unlikely that amateur players, being Class VII pilots, will be able to acquire pilot qualifications. Controlling all drone flights during the daytime only and within the speed limit of 120 km/hour is also not practical. Finally, it is highly unlikely that all amateur drone players will purchase third-party insurance, mostly due to the lack of legal supervision.
But in the Proposed Measures, we are seeing the State Council making changes to the entire management system and tidying up the regulatory measures. Classification of civilian drones in the Proposed Measures would be changed and divided into the following five types:
- Micro drones: drone weight less than 0.25kg, flight height not more than 50 metres, maximum speed not exceeding 40 km/hour, and with radio remote control device;
- Lightweight drones: drone weight less than 4kg, maximum takeoff weight less than 7kg, maximum flight speed not more than 100 km/hour, can be kept within the flight zone as required, and with monitor and control device;
- Small drones: drone weight less than 15kg, or maximum takeoff weight less than 25kg;
- Medium drones: maximum takeoff weight more than 25kg but less than 150kg, and drone weight less than 15kg;
- Large drones: maximum takeoff weight more than 150kg.15
With such divisions we see that the VLOS criterion is removed, and most commercial, civilian drones used for photography and filming purposes would be considered lightweight drones. Registrations would still be required for all civilian drones16, and a lightweight drone pilot must be at least 14 years old or under the guidance of an adult at the flying site17. Pilots of lightweight drones would only be required to pass a safety theory test, but no actual flying training or license would be required18.
The proposed measures also set down clearer no-fly zones for lightweight drones, including airspace above 120 metres, airport no-fly zones, military no-fly zones, 5,000 metres or closer to the national border, astronomical observatories and satellite stations, manufacturing or storage sites of flammables and explosives, petrol stations, power plants, major ports and train stations, railways, etc., and the corresponding defined distances near them. Agricultural drones are only allowed within lightweight drone flight areas and must be no more than 30 metres above the ground19.
More importantly, the Proposed Measures now clearly stipulate that the CAAC and its regional administrations shall have the sole power to manage the flying of drones. Local governments should draw up and update no-fly zones each year and submit them to the CAAC for approval; and when there is a need to temporarily close an airspace, local governments must make applications at the CAAC, and such closure usually should not last longer than 72 hours20. The CAAC, following the Proposed Measures, would therefore have the formal legal enforcement authority in drone regulations. This would certainly also provide convenience to all players, users and companies intending to use drones in their commercial activities in understanding actual rules and making applications for flight approvals.