Only a few years ago, many people had never seen or even heard of a drone. Today, in many major cities around the world, it would be an achievement to get through the week without seeing at least one. This is particularly true in Dubai. The UAE is striving to become a world leader in the use and development of drone technology: from the expectation that within the next few years taxi-drones will be operational within the city to the Drones for Good Awards launched by the office of H.H. Sheikh Mohammed Bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Prime Minister of the UAE and Ruler of Dubai to reward drone initiatives aimed at improving people’s lives.

These unique and innovative machines have led to new frontiers in aerial photography, surveying, hobby craft, and transportation, but have also given rise to significant regulatory, privacy, and safety issues. The General Civil Aviation Authority (“GCAA”) is the body responsible for monitoring and regulating drone use in the UAE. The GCAA issued a number of regulations including the Federal Resolution No. 2 of 2015 on Light Air Sports Practice Regulations (“Resolution”) and, most recently, the Civil Aviation Regulation (“CAR”) - Unmanned Aircraft Systems and Operations – Issue 01 (“CAR-UAS”), came into effect on 4 March 2018 to replace the previous CAR Part VIII - Subpart 10. Amongst others, the new regulation introduces further details regarding operator’s obligations and liabilities, requirement of insurance and reduces minimum pilot’s age to 16 years for activities other than commercial and non-commercial activities and drone events (21 years age limit applies for the latter activities).

One of the most important points to bear in mind is that any drone operator must obtain necessary approvals from the GCAA in accordance with the procedures described in the CAR-UAS prior to operating a drone in the UAE. Numerous instances have been reported of drone operators running into serious problems with the police because of their failure to comply with this requirement.

What is a drone?

The Resolution defines drones as Radio-controlled Aircraft (“RCA”) - model aircrafts that are remotely controlled and in the range of vision by a hand-held radio transmitter linked to a receiver within the aircraft. Drones are also referred to in the legislation as unmanned aircraft (”UA”) or unmanned aerial system. There is a requirement for a drone operator to register the drone. The GCAA has issued a mobile app called “GCAA UAE Drone Fly Zone Map” which can be used to register a drone as well as to check the no-fly zones in the UAE.

What drone related activities are covered by CAR-UAS?

The GCAA separates drone regulation by the purpose for which the drone is operated. CAR-UAS has expanded its scope to now include commercial and non-commercial activities, experimentation and research and development activities, UA events and demonstration flights. CAR-UAS does not regulate recreational or private UA usage (which is regulated by CAR Part II - Chapter 10); military usage; and UA usage intended for the carriage of passengers (the latter will be regulated separately as and when they are introduced).

Commercial activities are defined only as those where UA operation is conducted for remuneration or hire. Non-commercial activities include special operations such as photography, aerial surveying, firefighting, media, petroleum, surveillance, weather forecasting, wildlife protection, etc. It is easy to see that those are still commercial activities in the general sense of the word, but are defined as non-commercial for the purposes of the UA regulation. 

General drone operation limitations

The general rule is that drones are only to be flown during the day time; within the visual line of site of the operating crew and during visual meteorological conditions. The UA is limited in its flight to a height above ground of 400ft, and the maximum take-off mass of the UA is limited to 25kg. Operations shall not be conducted in prohibited, restricted, or congested areas; within the vicinity of crowds or above them; within controlled airspace; within zones declared as “No Fly Zones” (see GCAA mobile app); or within a perimeter of 8km of UAE airports outer fence, heliports, helicopter landing sites, or airfields. Any intended operations which fall out of these permitted specifications, can only be conducted with specific approval from the GCAA. The CAR-UAS contains further extensive rules regarding operation of the drones.

Obligations of a drone operator

The operator bears the full responsibility of compliance with the regulations and is obliged to establish procedures and instructions for the safe operation of the UA. There is also a requirement for the operator to obtain appropriate insurance prior to operating.

Operators are responsible for the correct maintenance of the UA and to ensure that the UA is fit for the intended flight together with all necessary accessories required for the safe operation of the UA. Operators are also required to ensure that all UA pilots meet the necessary requirements prior to allowing them to operate the UA.

All UA operators are also obliged to respect the privacy of others. Prior approval is required from the owner of property a UA is to fly over or nearby in addition to permission from the local municipality or other local authority for operation within public or residential areas. It is worth checking drone regulations applicable in individual emirates to ensure compliance.

Failure to comply with the relevant regulations can result in fines and/or imprisonment in addition to civil liability for any damage caused by the operation of a drone.

Conclusion

Drones are here to stay, and the UAE is leading the way towards the adoption of UA technology. The new GCAA regulation takes the UAE one step closer to its goal of becoming a leader in the field by expanding the range of permitted activities and striving to strike a balance between the public good brought by the use of drones with the paramount issues of public safety and privacy. This article was first published in The Oath, Issue 72, March 2018.