Flying drones is becoming a popular hobby in Malaysia. You can buy one for as little as RM 200, with more serious models retailing above RM 3,000 per unit.
Many companies are also employing drones to perform daily or commercial tasks. Amazon recently deployed its drone to perform package delivery for the first time in the UK.
Some professional photographers are using it to take wedding photographs and videos, while others use it for surveillance, monitoring and mapping purposes in the agriculture, construction and oil and gas industries. The Royal Malaysian Police have set up an Air Operation Force and are going to deploy drones to patrol the streets, basically acting as their eyes in the sky.
However, the use of drones has posed some safety concerns.
In March last year, an Instagram user flew his drone at very close proximity with an AirAsia aircraft to take pictures of it as it landed at KLIA. This caused an uproar on social media and the user was investigated by the police after a police report was lodged against him.
In July this year, a 5-year old boy’s head was struck with a flying drone, causing him to suffer a head fracture and 6cm cut. The police had issued a stern warning against people from using drones during gatherings such as the recently-concluded Bersih 5 rally without prior permission, citing cases where drones posed as a danger to public safety, security and privacy.
Is flying drones a regulated activity?
The answer is yes. In fact, many countries have come up with laws and regulations to regulate such activity, regardless of whether such activity is carried out commercially or leisurely.
Drones come under the purview of the Civil Aviation Act 1969, which is an Act administered by the Department of Civil Aviation (“DCA”), a department under the Ministry of Transport. According to the DCA, all drones operating in Malaysia must meet or exceed the safety and operational standards as those for manned aircraft. In other words, drones must be safe and not present a hazard to persons or property in the air or on the ground.
Permit and Limit of flying drones
According to the Civil Aviation Regulations 2016 (“2016 Regulation”), owners who have drones that are heavier than 20kg (“Big Drones”) must register with and obtain an authorization from the DCA before they can fly Big Drones. No registration is required for drones that are lighter than 20kg (“Small Drones”). Most recreational hobbyists are unlikely to fly drones of this size. For example, one of the most popular drones, DJI Phantom, only weighs 1.3 kg.
The 2016 Regulation also states that Big Drones owners are not allowed to fly their drones higher than 400 feet above the surface of the earth or in restricted air zones. Airports, royal palaces, military bases, telecommunication base stations, KLCC and Putrajaya are considered “restricted air zones”.
If you are in doubt, you should always check with the DCA on the location of your flying zone so as to avoid getting into trouble. If your drone has a camera attached to it, or if you intend to use the drone to deliver goods, you have a legal obligation to ensure that the camera or the goods will not drop off from the drone.
If you intend to fly a Small Drone for leisure purpose, you are required to maintain direct and unaided visual contact with the drone sufficient enough for you to monitor its flight path in relation to other aircraft, persons, vehicles, vessels and structures for the purpose of avoiding collisions.
If you intend to fly a Small Drone for surveillance purpose, you must not, without permission of the DCA, fly:
- over any designated area;
- within 150 metres of any designated area;
- over any assembly in the open air of more than 1,000 persons (that means no flying in public parks, stadiums or public rallies);
- within 150 metres of any assembly in the open air of more than 1,000 persons;
- within 50 metres of any person; and
- within 30 metres of any person during take-off or landing.
In addition to the above, Reg 80 of the 2016 Regulation states that the Minister may, if he thinks necessary in the public interest, restrict or prohibit flying in an area which has a gathering or movement of a large number of people.
How’s the treatment in other countries?
In some other countries, their drone laws are much stricter than ours. In Singapore, if you want to fly a drone that weighs more than 7kg, you must apply for a permit from the Civil Aviation Authority of Singapore. If you want to fly a drone for commercial purposes (such as taking pictures of an outdoor wedding), you will need to have a permit, regardless of the weight of your drone. In addition, you must only fly your drone in good weather and visibility and you cannot fly over moving vehicles where your drone may endanger or distract drivers.
In the UK, you must obtain permission from the Civil Aviation Authority prior to any commercial activity using a drone that weighs above 7kg. Your knowledge and competency as a drone pilot will be assessed before you are given permission to fly. While insurance is not required for drone operations, it is highly recommended. You must register your drone if it weighs above 20kg. In the US, you are not allowed to fly a drone within Washington DC regardless if you are flying for recreational or commercial purposes. Commercial drone operations are prohibited unless you have obtained a special clearance from the Federal Aviation Administration. If your drone is weighed above 0.2kg, you must register with the authority.
In China, all drones under 7kg are permitted to be flown without a license. If your drone weighs 7kg – 116kg, then you will need a license from Civil Aviation Administration of China. Hong Kong has a pretty strict set of rules when it comes to drone flying. Interestingly, it requires the drone to only be flown during daylight hours and that only one drone is allowed at any one time within the same block of a designated airspace. Japan bans all drones from flying over roads and properties without permission from the owners, and Osaka and Tokyo have banned drone use in all parks. Paris has been classified as a strict no-fly zone. A journalist for news network Al-Jazeera had his drone confiscated and was fined Euro 1,000 for flying a drone over central Paris.
Regulating drone flying to some extent is necessary, especially if it involves big drones, as they are capable of causing severe damages to property and human life.
It is unlikely that regulations would deter people from participating in drone flying. In any event, the majority of drone hobbyists probably would not need to apply for a permit anyway. So go on and fly your drone, so long as you comply with the rules set by law.