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Hong Kong aviation

Rules long overdue on the use of drones

The government should consider calls from lawmakers for closer supervision of devices with cameras that raise privacy concerns and clear no-fly zones

PUBLISHED : Friday, 15 December, 2017, 1:18am
UPDATED : Friday, 15 December, 2017, 1:18am

As drones have become more affordable, accessible and sophisticated, it is unsurprising that regulations have not kept up with operator trends and habits – particularly those of recreational users. But it is worrying that the sharp rise in recreational drone flying coincides with a number of reports of collisions and near misses between drones and passenger aircraft around the world. The potential for catastrophic consequences is obvious.

It is exacerbated, in the eyes of the global aviation industry, because the operators of small recreational drones generally do not understand the potential risks to manned aviation. As a result, the Civil Aviation Department has told lawmakers of proposals for revised rules that would require unmanned aircraft weighing more than 250 grams to be registered and users trained to operate them safely. Drones exceeding 7kg would also be vetted and insured.

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Hopefully no time will be lost in enshrining these provisions in law after a short public consultation planned by the authorities. They broadly follow US rules that are also underpinned by a registration system with heavy penalties for non-compliance. Aviation safety must remain paramount even in respect of legitimate commercial activity, which includes use by the media, and recreation and research. For example, we should not overlook the potential for consumer services such as delivering small parcels, including to remote areas costly to serve by aircraft. Several departments routinely use drones, as do elite police squads.

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The government should consider calls from lawmakers for closer supervision of drones with cameras that raise privacy concerns and for the enforcement of clear no-fly zones to help users avoid breaking the law. It is good that officials are considering creating a drone map. Some parts of the city such as north Lantau Island, including the airport, and Victoria Harbour are already designated as no-fly zones. The department and the privacy commissioner have also issued guidelines. It may just be luck that drones have yet to cause any serious mishaps in Hong Kong. The need for better education and regulation is evident.