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Hong Kong aviation

Tighten drone flying rules now rather than wait for revised laws, Hong Kong lawmakers urge officials

Issues of contention include privacy, robustness of regulation, registration and demarcation of no-fly zones

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 12 December, 2017, 8:25pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 13 December, 2017, 2:31pm

Rules on flying drones in Hong Kong should be tightened immediately by civil aviation authorities as any proposed amendments to legislation on unmanned aircraft would be outdated when enacted, lawmakers said on Tuesday.

At the Legislative Council economic development panel hearing, legislators expressed doubts over suggestions by authorities to revise drone regulations. Among the issues raised were the robustness of the rules, privacy concerns and wrangling over no-fly zones.

Following recommendations by industry experts, the Civil Aviation Department had proposed requiring most drones – formally known as unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV) – to be registered and for users to be trained and insured.

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Wallace Lau Ka-ki, deputy secretary for transport and housing, told lawmakers that the government was keen to strike a balance between public safety and innovation.

The aviation regulator’s proposal suggests drones should be divided into three categories based on weight, which would determine how they can be flown. The rules would dictate whether drones need to be registered and whether owners need basic or specialist training.

Owners with drones weighing under 250 grams would not need to register their devices with authorities. Anything over this weight would be subject to tougher regulation.

“For the approach to registration and regulation, we need to advance with the times,” lawmaker Lo Wai-kwok said. “We may very well want to introduce certain restrictions but I’m afraid they will soon become outdated. What we need most urgently is a marking system and a registration system.”

Hong Kong’s proposals will broadly follow American standards. In the United States, all drones must be registered. Information is then made available to law enforcement authorities, and failure to register and tag a drone is punishable by a US$250,000 (HK$1.95 million) fine or up to three years in jail.

Legislator Michael Tien Puk-sun, however, said he believed it would be difficult to enforce such laws locally. “I think drones should come with pre-loaded functions to [limit how high they can fly],” he told officials, citing the efforts of Chinese drone maker DJI to ensure its machines adhered to safety limits.

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“Will you mandate the incorporation of black boxes and height restrictions?” Tien asked, referring to the devices installed on planes to record flight data.

Tien argued that any drone equipped with a camera should be listed, as they represent a privacy concern.

From 2014 until last month, the aviation regulator received 136 complaints about drones, largely related to privacy issues, the government said.

Civic Party lawmaker and trained pilot Jeremy Tam Man-ho also called for Hong Kong to enforce clear no-fly zones so users could fly without the risk of being punished for breaking the law. The government is considering creating a drone map to establish safe flying areas.

No-fly zones have been declared in Victoria Harbour, country parks, the airport, military sites, prisons and in government-run leisure facilities, but rules are rarely enforced or observed.

“We need to have drone maps and no-fly zones demarcated instead of relying on textual demarcation,” Tam said.

We need to have drone maps and no-fly zones demarcated instead of relying on textual demarcation
Jeremy Tam, lawmaker

Last week, the International Air Transport Association, a global airline trade body, urged governments to ensure enforcement of rules to deter dangerous flying of recreational drones, calling such activities “reckless”.

China drone maker DJI, the largest manufacturer of unmanned aerial vehicles in the world, said it was too early to predict the potential impact of new or enforced regulations on its customers.

“It’s great to see that governments around the world, including Hong Kong’s Civil Aviation Department, are actively reviewing their regulations,” Kevin On, a DJI spokesman said. “We believe that DJI and regulators have a common goal – safe skies open to innovation. We support reasonable risk-based regulations that will enable people and businesses to realise the full potential of drone technology.”

A short public consultation on the matter is set to be conducted in Hong Kong by the first quarter of 2018 and finish by the middle of the year.