Police arrest four in Beijing after mysterious drone forces diversion of civilian planes

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 31 December, 2013, 2:06pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 31 December, 2013, 4:33pm

Four employees at a Beijing company were detained by police pending a criminal investigation on Monday after they flew an unmanned aircraft near the Chinese capital's airport, forcing the diversion of two airplanes and causing multiple flight delays.

The suspects, whose identities were not disclosed, were detained on suspicion of “endangering public security” after they were linked to the self-modified drone that cruised near Beijing International Airport and “seriously interrupted flight orders” on Sunday, local media reported on Tuesday.

Advances in unmanned-aircraft technologies around the world have spawned a drone craze in China in recent years, with videographers, technology geeks and even aspiring businesses investing in the technology for recreational and professional purposes.

However, in a stark reminder of China's tight control over its airspace, Beijing police told the Beijing News that all small aircraft operators must report to the authorities and obtain proper approval before flying.

The offending drone was picked up by radars of the Civil Aviation Administration at around 11am on Sunday, flying at an altitude of 700 metres at a speed of more than 100km/h, the officials told the Beijing Times.

The findings prompted the aviation authority to order two civilian airplanes in the sky to divert from their flight courses to dodge the drone, consequently resulting in more than a dozen of flight delays in the airport.

The aviation authority and police also scrambled a helicopter to intercept the unmanned aircraft and eventually brought it to the ground.

Police later told the press that the drone belonged to a company that modified it from a model plane and used it to carry out surveying jobs. The four arrested were from the company who remotely controlled the drone on Sunday, the police said, adding they are still investigating the case.

There are yet to be any relevant regulations in China clearly stating legal liabilities from accidents caused by drones, but civilian drones in the country are currently subject to very strict regulations.

“All unmanned aircrafts are banned from entering the 15-kilometre range of airports and from flying higher than 100 metres on flight courses elsewhere,” Feng Chang, co-founder of Beijing FlyCam which specialises in aerial photography and videography, told the South China Morning Post on Tuesday.

“All unmanned aircraft flight plans must get permissions from aviation authorities beforehand,” Feng said, quoting the Civilian Use of Drones Regulations.

Rules regarding drones vary in different parts of the world. Under British regulations, drones can be flown no higher than 120 metres and must stay within 500 metres of the pilot, who must be able to see them at all times.

The US aviation administration just on Monday loosened its rigid control over the domestic use of civilian drones by giving permission to six sites for drone testing and flying, paving the way for widespread use of unmanned commercial aircraft in the future.

Drones have been mainly used by the military, but governments, businesses, farmers and others are making plans to join the market. Many universities are starting or expanding curriculum involving drones.

Additional reporting by Associated Press