Growing use of hobby drones raises safety and privacy issues

Mr Ronald Yong operating one of his multi-rotor copters on an open field in Tuas, and a photo (above) of himself taken by the drone. The camera is controlled by a smartphone app. -- ST PHOTO: MARK CHEONG
Mr Ronald Yong operating one of his multi-rotor copters on an open field in Tuas, and a photo (above) of himself taken by the drone. The camera is controlled by a smartphone app. -- ST PHOTO: MARK CHEONG
Mr Ronald Yong (above) operating one of his multi-rotor copters on an open field in Tuas, and a photo of himself taken by the drone. The camera is controlled by a smartphone app. -- ST PHOTO: MARK CHEONG
Mr Ronald Yong (above) operating one of his multi-rotor copters on an open field in Tuas, and a photo of himself taken by the drone. The camera is controlled by a smartphone app. -- ST PHOTO: MARK CHEONG

For $1,500, remote-control (RC) fans here can buy a mini-helicopter that can fly as high as 1km, go on autopilot and take pictures or film videos in the air.

As prices continue to fall, these drones are expected to become a more common sight here. And not just among hobbyists, but also commercial firms using them to make movies or wedding videos or to inspect tall buildings.

Yet given Singapore's dense urban landscape, the increasing use of these unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) is raising concerns.

A battery-powered drone can weigh more than 10kg and could cause serious injury if it crashes. And its potential as a tool to spy on people means there are privacy issues as well.

The aviation authorities around the world, including in Singapore, are working on fresh regulations to deal with the proliferation of private mini-drones.

Getting cheaper

THE use of UAVs has long been explored by militaries, and has attracted plenty of controversy over their role in missile strikes and surveillance. But these army drones are usually large, sophisticated and very expensive.

Interest in mini-helicopter drones among hobbyists, however, started to grow after a four-rotor model, weighing less than 500g and which could be controlled by a smartphone, hit stores in 2010. The $449 Parrot AR Drone, developed by a French company, came with a camera that could stream videos.

Since then, the number of multi-rotor copter models has grown, with Chinese manufacturers jumping on a bandwagon previously dominated by a handful of American and European firms, said Mr P.K. Lee, owner of Rotor Hobby in Kreta Ayer.

Advances in technology have made drones easier to handle and have pushed prices down - a key reason behind their increasing popularity here.

Mr Frederick Yong, manager of Singapore Hobby Supplies, said prices are now half what they were five to six years ago.

A palm-sized model can cost less than $100, said Mr Liew Hui Sing, course manager for Singapore Polytechnic's diploma in aeronautical engineering. Those with autopilot functions and camera mounts sell for around $1,500.

More sophisticated commercial models can cost over $10,000 - still relatively more affordable when compared to the $4,000 to $5,000 it costs to rent a helicopter for less than an hour.

Drone community

INTEREST in recreational drones among local hobbyists has taken off in the last two to three years.

RCE Hobby store owner Chong Kim Joo said his drone customers had more than doubled in the past two years. Ms Vivian Poh, a manager at SGBotic which supplies electronic parts including for drones, said multi-rotor parts now sell out within weeks.

A community of drone enthusiasts has sprouted, patronising the half-dozen RC shops in and around the Fook Hai Building on South Bridge Road, and swopping advice on the local www.daddyhobby.com forums.

Business development manager Ronald Yong, who has been an RC enthusiast since he was about six years old, got into drones about four years ago.

The 39-year-old has since spent about $5,000 on the hobby. "What's interesting is putting the electronic parts together and seeing how they control a multi-rotor copter," said the member of RC club Radio Modellers Singapore, which flies model aircraft at a field in Tuas.

And through visiting hobby stores and online forums and flying his drones in the field, he has met like-minded hobbyists.

"After flying in the field, we'll chit chat, go for meals, talk about family, share pictures and keep in touch through Facebook and WhatsApp. It's a social thing," he said.

According to Mr Frederick Yong, a committee member of Radio Modellers Singapore, 30 to 40 per cent of the club's 100 members fly drones.

Mr Delwyn Ooi, 32, who does not belong to a club, said he got into multi-rotor copters about a year ago, investing almost $2,000 into his new hobby. The draw for the project manager was seeing what the drone "sees" through a camera. "I get to see aerial views that I don't normally do,"he said.

Commercial use

THE ability to mount a camera is why drones have sparked so much interest in commercial aerial photography and filming - and not just in Hollywood.

Local director Jack Neo told The Straits Times that it can be difficult to use a helicopter for certain shots because it is not allowed to fly close to HDB flats. With a camera-fitted drone, this is not an issue.

The opening sequence for his 2012 movie We Not Naughty has the camera flying high between two HDB blocks. His latest movie, The Lion Men, which opened here on Jan 30, also has several aerial shots taken with drones. "RC aircraft can make filmmakers' dreams come true," said Neo.

Hiring a helicopter for filming is also not cheap: It can cost $4,000 to $5,000 for less than an hour and $30,000 for a full day. A drone can be rented from $2,000 to $4,000 for half a day.

Companies here have also used drones for shooting wedding videos and events.

Home-grown firm Avetics began using drones for aerial photography two years ago as they can take images at angles "that will be impossible to do with helicopters, such as shots close to a subject", said Mr Zhang Weiliang, a system engineer at the firm.

Avetics, which develops its own drones, has used them for shoots ordered by shipping and construction companies, as well as for inspections of tall structures such as chimneys.

The National Environment Agency, meanwhile, is assessing proposals to use drones to conduct more efficient searches for mosquito-breeding grounds.

Dangers

BUT helicopter drones have limitations, including battery life. Many battery-operated models cannot stay up for more than an hour.

There can also be instances when a drone loses the signal with its controller due to interference from other signals, said Mr Phang Swee King, a fourth-year PhD candidate from the NUS Graduate School for Integrative Sciences and Engineering.

And if the drone is not well designed, this can cause it to fall from the sky and bystanders could get hurt, he added.

Some copters have an emergency parachute to help prevent this.

Mr Zhang from Avetics said his firm's drones have other fail-safe features that allow them to return to their launch sites on their own when signals are broken.

Drones might also pose a risk to aircraft that are landing or taking off - which is why flying model aircraft is banned within 5km of an airport or airbase, said a spokesman for the Civil Aviation Authority of Singapore (CAAS). This includes areas such as Pasir Ris,Tampines, Ang Mo Kio, Woodlands and Boon Lay. Outside the 5km limit, model aircraft, including drones, cannot fly above 61m.

To fly within the 5km limit or above 61m, permission from CAAS is needed. Photo-taking in the air or flying any unmanned aircraft that weighs more than 7kg requires authorisation as well.

Even then, unmanned aircraft operators are expected to take precautions to ensure their craft do not pose a hazard to aircraft, people or property, the CAAS spokesman said. Those who flout the rules can be fined up to $20,000. Repeat offenders can be fined up to $40,000, jailed for up to 15 months, or both.

The growing popularity of drones has prompted the International Civil Aviation Organisation to form a group, which includes Singapore and American aviation regulators, to work out global standards. It is aims to release a manual on remotely piloted aircraft systems this year.

After international standards for unmanned aerial systems are set, CAAS said it will review its own policies, taking into account Singapore's busy and tight airspace and aviation safety.

Noting that the public here might be unaware of the safety issues and the regulations on aerial activities, such as flying model aircraft, CAAS will launch a public education campaign soon, its spokesman added.

Privacy issues

THERE are no laws specifically targeting the use of drones to invade people's personal spaces.

But under Singapore's Personal Data Protection Act, permission is needed before taking photos or videos for commercial use, said lawyer Bryan Tan, a partner at Pinsent Masons MPillay. However, this applies only to private places, not public ones.

The Act also does not apply when photos or videos are taken in private areas for personal use, such as during a visit to a friend's home, Mr Tan said.

Instead, aggrieved parties can rely on other legal avenues.

If a drone snaps pictures of a woman in a state of undress, it could be considered an insult to her modesty, which is punishable by law, said Mr Tan.

Flying a drone above a person's home might be construed as trespass because the person owns a certain amount of airspace above it, although the amount is not clearly defined, he added.

Mr Matthew Hunter, an associate at law firm Olswang Asia, said that anyone using a drone to take photos or videos of people could be found guilty of harassment. However, the laws have yet to be tested on this and may need to be further developed, he added.

Still, any complaint will depend on the person being aware that a drone is being used to get footage of him, and feeling distressed, noted Mr Tan.

To stay clear of such privacy issues, one hobby group under the Compassvale Plains Residents' Committee does not allow its members to attach cameras to their drones. Said the group's founder Peter Yu, a 45-year-old crane operator: "It's because there are a lot of HDB blocks near where we fly."

kennyc@sph.com.sg

Additional reporting by Irene Tham

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