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Technology

Dos and don’ts for drone fliers as Hong Kong considers laws to limit and license their use  

With the popularity of unmanned aerial vehicle soaring as their price drops, safety is a growing concern around the world – including Hong Kong; recreational and commercial ‘pilots’ consider the prospect of new regulations 

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 11 April, 2018, 7:47am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 11 April, 2018, 9:05am

Are drones about to become a victim of their own popularity? That’s one concern expressed by enthusiasts of the popular remote-controlled flying devices, after Hong Kong’s aviation authority launched a public consultation last week on drone regulation. Although they may agree that supervision is necessary for safety reasons, operators are unsure how much the new rules will clip their wings.

The first commercially successful consumer drone – French company Parrot’s AR.Drone – was launched only in 2010 and retailed for about US$300. However, the technology has since advanced so rapidly in such a short space of time that it is now possible to buy a drone for as little as HK$200 (US$25).

Functionality has broadened as users experiment with the technology. While they have primarily been used for aerial photography, potential applications have been identified in search and rescue operations, surveillance, goods delivery and much more.

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Drone racing has become a new hobby for some, for example. Italian fashion house Dolce & Gabbana used them to carry handbags down the catwalk during Milan Fashion Week in February, while chip maker Intel staged a light show at the Winter Olympics in South Korea with a record-breaking 1,218 drones. 

Just last month, criminals in the southern Chinese city of Shenzhen – home of Chinese drone maker DJI – were caught using the devices to smuggle iPhones across the border from Hong Kong. 

What’s next for the unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV) is anyone’s guess, but taxi drones big enough to carry two people are being tested in Dubai. 

This growth in popularity is no doubt a concern to Hong Kong’s Civil Aviation Department, which launched the three-month public consultation last week in the face of a growing number of safety scares in Hong Kong and around the world.

In January, a drone almost collided with a rescue helicopter en route from Wan Chai to Cheung Chau. A month earlier, at the ePrix electric car races, a reporter injured himself while moving to avoid a falling drone at the Central Harbourfront.

One person familiar with the potential hazards caused by drones is Diaz Man, who runs a business with other enthusiasts rescuing crashed devices in Hong Kong. The Drone Rescue Service team charge HK1,000 to HK$1,800 (US$127 to US$229) per rescue, depending on the difficulty of the task, and the time and manpower required.

Man began receiving requests for help after he posted a video of his team abseiling down a stretch of Lantau Peak, the second highest mountain in Hong Kong, to retrieve his drone after it got trapped on a cliff.

More people are flying drones but they don’t know how to control them properly
Diaz Man 

Since going into the business of drone rescue 18 months ago, they have recovered more than 300 devices. Some rescues have involved free-diving to the seabed, swimming through muddy water to small islands, and climbing trees. Just as often, they are called out to retrieve devices that have landed on rooftops or on construction sites.

According to Man, more than 80 per cent of incidents result from operators’ poor flying skills. 

“More people are flying drones but they don’t know how to control them properly,” says Man, who is now familiar with all the drone crash hotspots in Hong Kong. The team has retrieved seven drones, for example, from a single tree at the Nam Sang Wai wetland in Yuen Long, in the city’s rural New Territories.

One common mistake “pilots”make is manoeuvring their drone in one direction while the camera faces the opposite way, so they cannot see where the drone is going. Another typical problem is a crash landing – which happens when the drone or its remote-control unit runs out of batteries. 

Man has come across instances where users mistake another drone for their own, while he has also seen users fail to lock in the battery securely.

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While many advanced models are equipped with anti-collision sensors, inexperienced users may be unfamiliar with their limitations. For example, the sensors cannot function in low lightand they can only detect objects in front or behind them, but not to the side.  

Although drones have allowed aerial photographers to capture Hong Kong’s stunning cityscape from a unique perspective, Man strongly advises against flying them in urban areas, especially in such a densely packed city. One problem is the signal interference caused by the many high-rise buildings.

He also warned of strong winds that can cause a drone to drift and crash into walls. If they do fall, there is a high chance of the aircraft injuring pedestrians or damaging vehicles. “Is taking a pretty photo worth the risk?” one of Man’s team members says.

Under current Hong Kong law, registration is required only for unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) weighing more than 7kg, which excludes most recreational drones. 

The Civil Aviation Department provides general operational parameters for all UAS, such as flying only during daylight hours, steering clear of obstacles and power sources, and not flying within 50 metres of any person, vessel, vehicle or structure. But they are merely guidelines.

Timothy Ma Kwok-hay, a Hong Kong photographer who flies drones for fun and professional use, believes regulation would improve safety, but at the same time hopes the laws will not be too restrictive. 

Others, including amateur drone operator Andy Tsang, are more pessimistic. “I am going to play with my drone while I still can because there will be too many constraints later on,” Tsang says.

Regulating drone use needs to take off

He may be right. The Civil Aviation Department’s consultancy report, carried out ahead of the public consultation, recommended several measures that could significantly curtail recreational drone use. They include a registration system for the devices, a compulsory licence for flying drones, a practical skills test and examination, and insurance for “higher risk operations”.

Civic Party legislator and drone enthusiast Jeremy Tam Man-ho envisions two registration systems: one that requires operators to undergo training to obtain a licence, and another in which users will have to register their devices. 

The key, he says, is to find a balance so that the law is not too restrictive, and classify the devices according to their function and performance level.

“We need to a draw a line somewhere. So for some of the smaller UAS, you won’t need a licence at all. But for some, licences will be required, maybe even more than one,” says Tam.

“[In addition to an online training course] for the high-performance drones, users may be required to go through [physical] training and be tested on their skills and control of the UAS.”

I am going to play with my drone while I still can because there will be too many constraints later on
Andy Tsang

Another urgent measure, he says, is to clearly set no-fly zones. “The way it is written [in the Civil Aviation Department’s guidelines] at the moment is really vague. You cannot use a device on either side of Victoria Harbour, but it does not specify where the actual boundaries are,” he says.

Another challenge will be how authorities enforce any new regulations. In Japan, several municipal governments, such as those of Tokyo and Osaka, have banned drone flights over residential areas, parks and large crowds – which basically covers the entire city. 

To enforce the ban, Tokyo’s police force has trained an anti-drone squad whose job it is to catch rogue aircraft with intercept drones, which snatch them from the sky using huge nets.

At the Commonwealth Games multisport tournament taking place in Australia, authorities have equipped officers with “drone guns” to shoot down unwelcome flying devices by blocking signals to them from the ground.

Other countries, including France, are taking a more unusual approach. The French military has trained eagles to attack and bring down rogue drones, by attaching strips of meat to the back of training devices. 

Police in the Netherlands followed suit, before quickly realising the idea was implausible. They found the cost of training was too high and the birds were easily distracted.

We need to a draw a line somewhere. So for some of the smaller [drones], you won’t need a licence at all
Jeremy Tam, legislator

Amid the legal vacuum, some organisations have taken the matter into their own hands. To protect the privacy of guests, hotels in Shanghai – including the Hanting Hotel on the Bund – have installed devices that interfere with a drone’s radio signal, jamming the motor. This, however, can be a danger to pedestrians because the devices will immediately fall from the sky.

Man advises beginners to be careful and practise their skills in the company of more experienced operators. At a three-hour workshop held in Fanling, in the northern New Territories, he teaches a dozen beginners basic techniques of control.

One tip in particular that Man offers the beginners has been picked up from his experience rescuing the devices: never paint your drone in army camouflage. It may look good in the air, but if it ever crashes in the wild it could be lost for good. 

“I could be standing three feet from the drone and will still never find it,” he says.