Is Hong Kong a wild frontier for drones? Lack of rules prompts fears over privacy and safety
The popularity of drones continues to soar, but industry insiders believe the city needs some sensible rules to keep the skies open
One recent weekend, I was lounging in a Hung Hom hotel's rooftop pool with friends from out of town when we noticed a silent visitor: hovering about three metres above us, its rotors whirring, a matt-black creature was slowly manoeuvring to keep the camera attached to its undercarriage trained on our group below.
My friends, on holiday from the US, were taken aback - "Whoa. Look. A drone!" - but I was unfazed. Although not a daily occurrence, a drone darting in and out of the Hong Kong skyline is fairly common sight. FlyCamHK, a specialist drones retailer, estimates that there are now more than 5,000 drone users in the city.
As the popularity of drones continues to grow among hobbyists and businesses, Hong Kong is often being described as a wild frontier for the radio-controlled aerial devices.
The extreme contrasts between the city's tower blocks, rural greenery and rugged coastline, along with its compact size and accessibility, make it an ideal place for flying drones and recording breathtaking aerial videos. Further fuelling the drone explosion are the relaxed regulatory climate and low entry barrier (cheap quadcopters can cost as little HK$250, although more sophisticated models for the ambitious hobbyist easily run to about HK$10,000).
However, some industry insiders and critics worry about the potential for injuries from out-of-control quadcopters, invasion of privacy from snooping cameras and the devices getting in the way of planes in the current freewheeling environment.
Civil Aviation Department regulations classify drones - and model aircraft - weighing less than 7kg as unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) and do not require users to have any special licence to fly them.
Much stricter rules apply to bigger models, but the technology has advanced so quickly that all but the very largest personal drones come under that 7kg limit. Acknowledging "the significantly different level of sophistication of systems available in the market", the department site urges operators planning to use the devices for non-recreational work to submit details of their plans to the department well before the intended date.
This call to submit plans is not a legal requirement, and only one company, SCP Aerials, has ever flown drones with official permission.
Advertising filmmaker Edwin Lee, who uses them in his work, says he once applied for approval, but the process was so slow he eventually went ahead without an official green light. "It's not like they have anybody watching the skies," he says.
Blogging about his visit to Hong Kong, an American videographer, whose aerial film of the city has become a favourite of local drone pilots, writes: "Coming from the US, people often look at drones with mistrust, or even fear, but in Hong Kong, people seemed genuinely curious and interested, which I found refreshing. Even the police officers would come by to take a closer look, and provided me with tips on good places to fly."
Watch the American videographer's aerial film
Still, some worry that the city's love affair with drones may reveal a darker side. Fears about privacy and the potential for injury are common. Drones are speedy devices - a top-range model from DJI can reach 80km/h - and their spinning rotors can cause serious injury if they hit a person.
Perhaps the most publicised injury involved an American photojournalist who lost the tip of her nose when a drone became tangled in her hair during a restaurant publicity event.
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In another close call, a drone filming the Occupy protests in Mong Kok last year crashed into a building and tumbled into the crowd. Luckily, no one was hurt.
Supporters are quick to point out there have not been any reports of serious injury or drone-related privacy complaints even though Hong Kong is one of the world's most densely populated cities.
Most drones have built-in safety systems: if the communications link to the pilot is lost or the battery runs out, they are programmed to descend slowly to the ground or use their global positioning system to return to the operator.
A bigger concern involves the devices getting in the way of commercial aircraft. Many drones have a function called No Fly Zones, which prevents them flying near airports.
Nonetheless, many pilots tell stories of drones crashing or behaving erratically, and critics believe it is only a matter of time before someone is hurt.
Aficionados such as Raphael Pirker, CEO of consultancy Team Black Sheep Avionics, reject depictions of the city as the "Wild West" for drones.
"Not at all," Pirker says. "Hong Kong is the biggest drone hub in the world; more than 90 per cent of the world's drones are manufactured in Shenzhen and shipped out through Hong Kong. Every large drone manufacturer has an office in Hong Kong. The industry is well established, and there are sensible regulations in place and people adhere to them."
The biggest drone maker is DJI. Set up in 2006 by University of Science and Technology alumnus Frank Wang, it now accounts for between 50 and 70 per cent of the market.
DJI public relations manager Michael Perry says some concerns are overblown. The biggest growth sector in the personal drone market, he says, is not in crowded urban centres or among photographers but in service roles well outside towns.
"Drones can get to places that were previously inaccessible, too costly, or too dangerous to survey," Perry says.
"So inspection is a big market for drone technology: electrical wire inspection, inspecting pipelines, solar panel fields, or radio tours. In what's called precision agriculture, drones can be used to more accurately map the land or use infrared sensors to monitor crop health more closely, showing you exactly where you need to irrigate, or spray pesticides. Archaeologists can now use 3D mapping software with a drone to precisely measure and accurately map sites."
Much of the inspection and maintenance work was previously conducted using helicopters or fixed-wing planes. Heliservices, the sole local helicopter service provider, aims to respond to this competition by rolling out its own drone programme. The company will be relying on its deeper pockets, years of aviation experience and familiarity with the regulatory framework to see off a slew of amateur challengers.
The company does concede, however, that safety worries stemming from lax controls on drone usage is an issue.
"There is a worldwide concern in aviation about the growing number of unregulated UAVs being operated illegally in airspace used by planes and helicopters, and Hong Kong is no exception," says Heliservice director of sales and marketing, Graham Hamilton.
"UAVs are supposed to be operated at a very low level, below the normal levels of commercial aircraft, and are supposed to be operated well clear from airports and heliports. But there have been numerous occasions when our pilots have encountered UAVs being operated in the areas that we operate in, in proximity to our aircraft ... We are seeing more and more encroachment on our airspace."
Hamilton says the potential danger of unregulated drone use is widely underestimated, suggesting that "sooner or later there is going to be a collision, perhaps where an aircraft engine ingests a drone and it results in a catastrophic crash with potential loss of life".
Even so, the number of hobbyists is likely to grow apace with commercial users. Amateur aerial videos of the skyline, harbour and country parks are racking up the hits on YouTube.
FlyHK, the city's first drone aerial photography and racing competition held last month, is another indicator of their popularity as a leisure pursuit, although organisers concede the sight of whizzing quadcopters is rousing unease. Writing on Facebook, one critic described clips from the contest showing a drone flying low over people, houses and power lines, raising "the potential for catastrophe".
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That's why drone industry executives such as Perry say the time has come to introduce some considered controls.
"I think the lack of regulation could potentially lead to overregulation," he says. "If you have no rules and something bad happens, the knee-jerk reaction is to say 'ban them all'. We want to see sensible rules that keep the skies open."
Patrick Kosiol, co-founder of video streaming system Sky Drone, concurs.
"Drones, especially in the commercial field, can revolutionise how we live," he says. "All of a sudden, physical distance is not that much of an issue. Let's imagine there are drones that can fly autonomously from point A to point B and perform a certain task there: drop off a parcel, deliver medical supplies, drop a navigation beacon, then charge up its own battery, and so on. The possibilities are endless and exciting.
"At the same time, there absolutely are risks, dangers and concerns about drone flying which need to be addressed. This is a field where regulators need to sit down with the industry to determine the best way to regulate the market.
"Hong Kong does have some regulation in terms of drones, but it needs to step up its game to get the commercial use of drones regulated quickly."