No permit, but drones are still flying high

When The Sunday Times visited this field in Tampines recently, some people the reporter spoke to admitted they were flying drones without a permit. Flying drones at this field along Tampines Avenue 10 requires a permit as it is within 5km of Paya Leb
When The Sunday Times visited this field in Tampines recently, some people the reporter spoke to admitted they were flying drones without a permit. Flying drones at this field along Tampines Avenue 10 requires a permit as it is within 5km of Paya Lebar Air Base.ST PHOTO: DESMOND WEE

Some seen in Tampines within 5km of airbase; gadgets may pose threat to planes, say experts

On weekends, an otherwise obscure field in Tampines comes alive. Scores of people troop in, set up their gadgets and engage in their favourite weekend activity.

What they are doing, though, is illicit. They are flying drones.

This is despite the fact that the field in Tampines Avenue 10 is off-limits to drones unless users have permits. It is within 5km of Paya Lebar Air Base and drones are deemed a potential threat to aircraft.

On a recent Saturday, there were about 30 people at the field. The Sunday Times spoke to half of them - and all admitted they did not have the necessary approval.

But they argue that what they are doing is safe as their drones are light, fly at a low height and stay within the confines of the field.

Aircraft mechanic Jackie Ho, 46, said: "We fly at below 100m so it won't endanger any planes."

The weekend bustle on the Tampines field underscores a conundrum for the authorities, as the popularity of drones soar with both hobbyists and commercial entities such as wedding photographers who use them to take panoramic snaps.

Since June last year, the Civil Aviation Authority of Singapore (CAAS) has received over 1,300 applications. It did not say how many permits were granted.

Permits are granted when the authorities assess that the activity will not threaten air traffic, the public and national security, said Dr Foong Shaohui, a robotics specialist from Singapore University of Technology and Design. Permits to fly within 5km of Changi Airport would not be granted easily, given the heavy air traffic, he said. He is unsure how often they are given for spaces around Paya Lebar Air Base.

To govern the use of drones, a new Bill was passed in Parliament last May, with then Transport Minister Lui Tuck Yew noting that there had been more than 20 incidents involving drones reported here since April 2014. The website www.onemap.sg can be used to identify restricted areas.

However, incidents involving drones have continued to arise.

In July, Hong Kong news agency FactWire said it used a drone camera to take photographs of SMRT trains parked at the Jurong Port in a report on China-made MRT trains being shipped back to their manufacturer after cracks were found on them.

Jurong Port said it "does not take such intrusions lightly and (is) working with the relevant authorities to ensure that necessary security measures are taken".

This month, Transport Minister Khaw Boon Wan said a drone damaged a housing block roof in Bishan. The operator has not been located, he said.

Meanwhile, some users bemoan the lack of spaces to fly in the east because of airfields such as Seletar Airport, Paya Lebar Air Base and Changi Airport. "If you have this hobby, the biggest problem is that you have no place to fly," said a user who declined to be named.

However, drone experts cautioned that such drones could cause an air accident, although the probability of this is low.

Dr Foong said that even a light remote-controlled aircraft that is supposed to fall to the ground when out of a user's line of sight, could malfunction, continue flying and pose a threat to aircraft.

Law academic Chen Siyuan from Singapore Management University said that for the authorities to meet the needs of drone hobbyists, they could conduct a study to see if it is safe to allow lighter drones that are less dangerous to planes to be flown closer to air fields.

However, he said it is unlikely rules will be relaxed. Countries around the world generally do not allow unmanned aircraft to fly within 5km of an airfield, he noted.

CAAS said that flying drones at the Tampines field "poses safety hazards to manned aircraft operations, regardless of the height at which (drones) are flown".

A report has been lodged with regard to three people and investigations are ongoing, it said. "Given Singapore's busy airspace and densely populated environment, there are approved areas designated for recreational aerial activities," it said.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on October 30, 2016, with the headline 'No permit, but drones are still flying high'. Print Edition | Subscribe