The General Civil Aviation Authority (GCAA) of the United Arab Emirates has recently passed a new regulation on the use of unmanned aerial systems (UAS). Civil Aviation Regulation part VIII, subpart 10 (the Regulation) became effective in April 2015 and is a: "regulatory strategy for the utilisation of unmanned aerial systems within the airspace of the UAE".
Until relatively recently, UAS (or "drones" as they are frequently known) have been primarily used for military purposes. However, due to the technological advances in the systems, a wide range of actual and potential commercial uses of UAS has emerged in recent years. Some examples include:
- Health sector - A student in the Netherlands has recently developed a prototype of a defibrillator attached to a drone, which is potentially able to provide medical care to heart attack victims within minutes. DHL and other courier companies plan to use "parcelcopters" to transport, amongst other things, medication.
- Civil defence - UAS could assist police officers in the pursuit of criminals, reducing the risk of officer casualties. They can arrive at crime scenes within minutes to provide a more detailed understanding of events and help with the identification of victims and law-breakers.
- News reporting - Drones can arrive at news scenes such as natural disasters faster than conventional camera teams and may allow the safe filming of those scenes from better angles.
- Agriculture - Through the use of remote sensors, drones can identify the health condition of crops and monitor their hydration and growth rates, as well as apply pesticides and fertilizers.
- Oil industry - Drones can efficiently monitor pipelines (including surveying, detecting and locating leaks), provide high-definition imagery to improve geological mapping and inspect sites and oil rigs.
- Telecommunications - UAE telecoms company du has used UAS, carrying smartphones with network testing applications, to analyse its phone network within the UAE. Telco drones can also be used for tower inspections and radio planning. Google has ambitious plans to use fleets of high-altitude, solar-powered drones to extend internet signals to millions of people without internet.
However, the same features that make the UAS suitable for this variety of commercial functions also create cause for concern. At the beginning of 2015 there were widespread reports that the landing of aircraft at Dubai Airport had been severely affected by recreational UAS being flown within the Airport’s airspace.
UAS are governed by existing aviation laws and regulations, but these laws were not drafted specifically with UAS in mind. The GCAA has now responded to a need for greater clarity over the use of UAS use with regulations intended to promote the benefits of their use whilst protecting the interests of the UAE and its citizens.
The new law aims to regulate the use of UAS within UAE airspace. In doing so it sets out measures to tackle concerns around their use, including safety, privacy and security concerns as follows:
- Safety - The principal worry is that UAS are flown too close to people, their property or other aircraft with the risk of collisions or accidents. The intent of the new Regulation is that UAS "operations must be as safe as manned aircrafts" and must not "create a greater hazard to persons, property, vehicles or vessels while in the air or on the ground".
- Privacy - Concerns stem from the ability to fly UAS close to people and their property and the ease with which they can be equipped with cameras. An individual’s right to private and family life is highly regarded and carefully protected under various UAE laws, such as the Penal Code, Cyber Crimes Law and Copyright Law. It is already the case that, under the UAE Federal Act No. 20 of 1991 (the Civil Aviation Law), it is illegal for any aircraft (including UAS) to be equipped with aerial photographic apparatus without authorisation from the civil aviation authorities. Nevertheless, the use of UAS mounted with cameras has become widespread and the Regulation identifies "ethical, privacy and data collection concerns" arising from the use of UAS for "surveillance, monitoring, mapping or video recording".
- Security - Security fears arise from the potential to use UAS for unlawful purposes, including illegal surveillance. In extreme cases, UAS can be used to transport weapons or contraband or be used as weapons themselves.
The Regulation classifies UAS into three categories for operation within UAE civil airspace based on: (i) the mass of the UAV, (ii) its capability (or performance) and (iii) the operator of the UAS (privately, commercially or state-operated). Depending on where a UAS sits within these categories, specific Regulation requirements and restrictions apply.
What is the commercial impact?
The Regulation encourages the commercial use of UAS in the UAE. Although the use of UAS for commercial purposes requires specific GCAA approval, some of the more restrictive aspects of the Regulation that apply to personal use do not apply to their commercial use.
The Regulation explicitly states that its purpose is to "reap the societal benefits of this innovative technology" and to "set the conditions for creating a strong and competitive manufacturing services industry with the ability to compete in the global market". This clearly reflects the UAE’s intent to become a significant manufacturer and exporter of UAS to meet global demand. Companies in the UAE have already begun manufacturing . For example, ADCOM Systems, an Abu Dhabi based UAS maker, has been manufacturing systems for civil as well as military use for global clients. The office of H.H. Sheikh Mohammed Bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Prime Minister and Ruler of Dubai, last year launched the ‘UAE Drones For Good Award’ last year to promote the design of UAS technology within the UAE, GCC and abroad, which improves lives.
No doubt the UAE authorities hope that having a more clearly defined regulatory landscape will have a positive effect on the commercial development of its domestic UAS industry.
So, what are the practical implications?
The new regulation sets out rules for the practical, non-military use of UAS. The restrictions on their operation differs with respect to private and commercial use and some of the key provisions include:
- Registration - All UAS greater than 0.5 kg (and all UAS for commercial use) must be registered with the GCAA’s licensing department. UAS for commercial use will require additional "GCAA E-Service UAS Operating Approval". Although it is not clear from the Regulation, this requirement may well be in addition to any existing registration requirements at the Emirate level (for example the Dubai Civil Aviation Authority).
- Flying area restrictions - The Regulation restricts the use of UAS to segregated areas approved by the GCAA, and at all times away from conventionally controlled airspace (such as airports). It protects the safety of third parties and their property by restricting the private use of UAS within close proximity to "any person, vessel, vehicle or structure".
- Equipment and operational requirements - The Regulation assigns the operator with the responsibility to make sure that all of the system's components are in working order prior to use, and it sets various frequency band restrictions. For private use, the operator must maintain visual line of sight with the UAV at all times, and may not fly it higher than 400 feet above ground level. The Regulation also promotes safety by only allowing the operation of UAS in daylight.
- Camera/surveillance equipment - The Regulation protects privacy by prohibiting the use of video or any image capturing devices for private operators and without prior authorization by the GCAA for commercial operators. Additionally, the Regulation prohibits flights of private UAS over "public or private properties" (though the meaning of “public” in this context is not clear).
It remains to be seen how and to what extent the Regulation will be enforced. Many UAS have already been sold in the UAE, so the registration requirements might have to apply retrospectively. The prohibition of cameras on private UAS particularly problematic, as it is likely that a high proportion of private UAS owners will want to record (or already are recording) aerial footage of themselves or their surroundings.
The GCAA has reported that they are currently in the process of drafting regulations for the import and distribution of UAS in the UAE. Publicly available information on these regulations is very limited at this stage.
Across the wider GCC, recent significant increases in UAS related activities has not gone unnoticed. Qatar’s Civil Aviation Authority is currently in the process of drafting regulations to govern the commercial and recreational use of UAS within Qatar airspace.
Given the potential growth of the industry in the region, other GCC countries are well advised and likely to follow the lead of the UAE and Qatar and introduce their own UAS specific regulations.