The sky’s the limit: Regulating drones in our limited airspace

The recent announcement by e-retailing giant Amazon of its first ever customer delivery by drone has thrown the spotlight on the rapid advances in drone technology.

In a slick PR video, Amazon showed a customer in the UK receiving a package delivered to his home by fully autonomous drone within 30 minutes of placing an online order.

With Amazon touted to begin operations next year in Singapore, we can expect that the firm will also be keen to export its technology to our increasingly busy skies.

As drone technology changes – and changes rapidly – new challenges arise that will have to be addressed

At the same time, sometime in early 2017, a group led by European aviation giant Airbus is expected to begin trials at the National University of Singapore (NUS) of a drone parcel delivery service. Initially it will be confined to specific air corridors above the NUS campus, but if successful it is expected to quickly grow in scope.

Recent years have seen a surge in the popularity of drones for civilian use – for commercial, recreational and industrial purposes. In the past six months the Civil Aviation Authority of Singapore says it has received over 1,300 drone permit requests. At the same time however, reports have found a growing number of unlicensed drone operators flying in our skies.

This boom in the number of licensed and unlicensed drones raises several concerns: Should drone operators be obliged to have pilot training? What implications are there for privacy? What restrictions should be placed to ensure drones are safe? And how can this be enforced?

There is little doubt that the development of drone technology offers some exciting new opportunities. For Singapore, in particular, it poses an interesting challenge. Our small land area means we have limited airspace to spare. Yet we also want to encourage entrepreneurship and allow room for innovative industries, including drone technology, to grow and thrive.

At the NUS Business School, my research focuses on the relationship between law and emerging technologies, including e-commerce. It is common for the law to lag behind technology and the case of drones is no exception. This is, after all, a technology that simply did not exist a few years ago.

Safety and security

From a legal perspective, the challenge is to strike the right “judicious balance” between regulation to ensure safety and personal security on the one hand; and, on the other, avoiding moves that could stifle entrepreneurship and thwart a promising emerging technology.

The capabilities of future drones and their potential intrusiveness, particularly given that some 85% of Singaporeans live in high-rise public housing, pose obvious privacy issues.

But as drone technology changes – and changes rapidly – new challenges arise that will have to be addressed. With drones becoming smaller, more capable, and more affordable, a more robust regulatory framework will be needed.

At present, Singapore’s drone-specific legislation, the Unmanned Aircraft (Public Safety and Security) Act focuses on safety and security risks – for example banning usage near to airports and sensitive areas – an approach taken by many other countries. But it does not address issues of privacy that may arise from drone usage.

Yet we can see now the direction that drone technology is heading.

Drones will be able to fly higher, deliver better images, hover for longer and will be smaller, easier to operate and therefore harder to detect. Crucially they will also be more affordable, meaning they will come within the reach of more people and become more widespread. Already some drones cost little more than $100.

Data collection

The capabilities of future drones and their potential intrusiveness, particularly given that some 85% of Singaporeans live in high-rise public housing, pose obvious privacy issues. There is little doubt that this will become more pressing and detailed rules will be needed to regulate the data collection uses that future drones will be capable of.

At present only the Personal Data Protection Act 2012 (PDPA) provides some restriction on the kind of data-collection and photographic work that drone operators can carry out. However the provisions of the PDPA are only general and, notably, are not drone-specific.

Furthermore, unlike counterparts in the EU, United Kingdom and Hong Kong, Singapore’s Personal Data Protection Commission has yet to publish any guidelines for drone operators on how to comply with data protection legislation.

What is needed are detailed rules on the operation of drones and public safety, taking into consideration Singapore’s dense population and limited airspace.

Rules should also address the operation of the drone, including governing its airworthiness, approval of its operating manual, as well as minimum age and training of those operating the drone. With no way to increase our airspace, and given that most of it covers densely populated areas, besides restrictions and permits, registration and tracking of drones should also be considered.

These proposals are already part and parcel of drone regulatory frameworks in other countries, yet having them in place is key to ensuring that Singapore stays ahead of the game technologically.

As with any emerging industry, uncertainty over the regulatory framework regarding drones will hamper business development because developers and operators will be unclear about what they can and cannot do.

Therefore, as commercial drone usage becomes increasingly widespread, operators need detailed rules and guidelines in order to grow into a viable industry.

If Singapore wishes to be at the forefront of such new industries, having the right regulatory structure in place is as important as having the right labour skills.

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