Hong Kong's 'hands off' regulations prompt growth in drone flying by amateurs

As airborne drones become affordable to amateurs, a lack of regulation encourages enthusiasts - and raises privacy fears for others

PUBLISHED : Monday, 07 July, 2014, 5:43am
UPDATED : Monday, 07 July, 2014, 11:12am

As the out-of-breath tourists gazed from the top of the steps to the Tian Tan Buddha, a drone flew overhead, offering its operator an even greater view, without the exertion.

Yet the remote-controlled aircraft was not being flown by some secretive government agency, or high-budget movie producer. It was simply a man indulging a hobby.

Such a scene has become increasingly common as cheaper and more innovative technology makes remote-controlled aircraft affordable to the general public. And it's particularly common in Hong Kong, where amateurs are unbound by regulation.

The drone above the Big Buddha was created by Kowloon-based company Team BlackSheep. The company's 29-year-old owner, the Swiss-Austrian Raphael Pirker, moved to Hong Kong just over a year ago to take advantage of "hands off" laws.

Watch: Team BlackSheep's drone video of Hong Kong

"The laws are pretty good because we fly for fun. Hobbyists are pretty much excluded from the regulations that would require us to seek permission to fly anywhere else," he said.

Pirker estimates there are up to 5,000 owners of drones in Hong Kong.

Recent technology has been "game-changing" and flying the models is "more liberating than being in your own aircraft".

Team BlackSheep, which includes Remo Masina and Christoph Dunkel, has flown drones at locations across the world, including at New York's Statue of Liberty, and above the shipwrecked Costa Concordia. Their YouTube videos have received more than 10 million hits.

Technology advances mean that even non-military drones can now fly for up to 45 minutes with a range of 10,000 feet.

Lighter and smaller drones are coming onto the market; even the government has acknowledged the aircraft are becoming "more popular and versatile".

Such advances also mean commercial users are increasingly not bound by regulations such as the 1995 air navigation order, which requires non-commercial drones weighing seven kilograms or more to apply for a new permit for every flight.

Under the order, the Civil Aviation Department requires operators to fly below 3,000 feet, during daylight hours, in good weather conditions, and not within 5km of an aerodrome.

Aircraft light enough to not be covered by the rule would be an advantage for Jeffrey Yim, 48, who founded KF Innovatus to provide aerial cinematography to the creative industries. "Every time I get a job, I have to apply for a permit and it takes 28 days, and a lot of jobs are missed primarily because the client can't wait or doesn't plan that far ahead."

Technological advances have also prompted privacy concerns.

Privacy Commissioner Allan Chiang Yam-wang said in April the government should "take the lead" on law reforms to address privacy issues caused by drones.

Charles Mok, lawmaker for the IT sector, has also called for updated laws. "The balance between innovation and privacy protection is a delicate one … users are treading the boundaries of our privacy law."

The CAD said it would continue to monitor a global study of drones by the International Civil Aviation Organisation.

But regulation is a complex issue, especially as the government has its own uses for drones. The Lands Department uses drones for surveys in challenging terrain, while the Observatory, the Agriculture, Fisheries and Conservation Department and the Housing Department are also considering using them.