Singapore to introduce drone law: 5 things about these flying machines

Drone enthusiasts taking part in International Drone Day at the Singapore Flyer on March 14, 2015.
Drone enthusiasts taking part in International Drone Day at the Singapore Flyer on March 14, 2015. PHOTO: THE NEW PAPER

SINGAPORE - Parliament on Monday gave the nod to the Unmanned Aircraft (Public Safety and Security) Bill, which aims to regulate the use of drones with a clear set of rules.

The new law will take effect from next month.

Transport Minister Lui Tuck Yew said that 20 incidents involving drones, which are fast gaining popularity here, have been reported since April 2014.

There were two instances when drones dropped on MRT tracks: at Commonwealth MRT last month and at Lakeside MRT earlier this month. In both incidents, a member of the public had flown the drone in an open field and lost control of it. No services were disrupted nor damage caused to the tracks.

Here are five things to know about the use of drones in Singapore and other countries:

1. Who uses drones in Singapore?

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Drones are becoming more common, thanks to the availability of cheaper models in recent years. Entry-level ones cost as little as $50, with more serious models retailing at more than $1,300.

Recreational drones, which can weigh from less than 500g to more than 10kg, are popular among hobbyists.

Drone racers form groups and chat on online forums, regularly taking their machines out for a spin at open fields located in Tuas and Punggol.

Commercially, companies are increasingly open to the use of drones for photography, filming and advertising. Local film-maker Jack Neo has used drones for some of his movies, including last year's The Lion Men.

Home-grown company Avetics develops its own drones for shoots ordered by shipping and construction companies, while it was reported last year that the National Environment Agency had considered deploying drones to conduct searches for mosquito breeding grounds.

Last October, Timbre Group signed a seven-figure deal with local firm Infinium Robotics, which will see fully-automated flying robot drones serve food to customers at its five F&B outlets. They are expected to be rolled out by the end of the year.

2. How does the new Bill build on existing rules?

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Under the current Singapore Air Navigation Order, permits must be obtained for flying a drone within 5km of an airport or air base, and for flying one higher than 61m above mean sea level.

An application to conduct aerial photography from a camera-mounted drone must also be submitted to the Civil Aviation Authority of Singapore (CAAS).

The new framework stipulates that operators need a permit to fly a drone that weighs more than 7kg, as well as for commercial purposes such as taking pictures of an outdoor wedding.

Specialised services like surveying, aerial advertising or the discharge of any substance from the drone will also require a permit.

In addition, security-sensitive locations and special event areas - for instance, at the upcoming SEA Games - will be gazetted as "protected areas" and those without a permit will not be allowed to fly drones or take aerial photographs of these areas.

A list of security-sensitive areas where such aircraft are not allowed to fly without a permit, like the Istana, will be published.

Those found guilty of carrying dangerous materials like weapons or hazardous chemicals on drone could be fined up to $100,000 and jailed up to five years.

Breaching the other regulations carry either a maximum fine of $20,000, a year's jail, or both.

3. Who are those affected?

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Hobbyists who fly drones for recreational or private purposes are unlikely to see much disruption because they do not need a permit under the new law. Drones for recreational use usually weigh less than 7kg.

However, Mr Derrick Tan, owner of Sky Hobbies Singapore which sells drones, said there is a need to raise awareness on the safe usage of drones. The company plans to put up a list of CAAS-approved guidelines on its website to further educate customers.

There is already considerable red tape when it comes to obtaining permission for the commercial and specialised usage of drones, with some service providers saying that the new laws could make it even more difficult for them.

Mr Christopher Armstrong, owner of Armstrong Skyview which sells custom-made drones and provides drone-filming services, cited an example of how a potential client had wanted to hire the company to conduct an aerial building inspection, but eventually decided against it due to the troublesome process of obtaining the required permits.

4. How big a hazard could drones pose?

According to Mr Armstrong, it is rare for hobbyists or drone operators on general filming and commercial photography assignments to use drones weighing more than 7kg as those could cause serious injury or even kill if they crashed and hit bystanders. 

The heavier machines are usually reserved for more specialised jobs such as filming for movies due to the equipment that needs to be mounted on them. 

There is the possibility of a drone losing the signals with its controller due to interference from other signals. The risks posed to aircraft landing or taking off is also why drones are banned within a 5km radius from aerodromes.

5. Do other countries have laws on drones?

France

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France, which has the largest number of drone operators in Europe with over 1,600 companies, has one of the most advanced laws regulating the use of civilian drones.

Its capital Paris has been classified as a strict no-fly zone. Illegal use of a drone could land an offender a maximum of five years' jail and a €75,000 (S$112,700) fine.

French law also bans small civilian drones from areas such as nuclear facilities, which are protected by a no-fly zone that spans a 2.5km radius and a height of 1,000m.

In March, a British journalist working for news network Al-Jazeera was fined €1,000 for flying a drone over central Paris and had his machine confiscated.

The punishment was meted out following a recent series of mysterious drone sightings over Paris. Police have been unable to track down any of the operators of the overflights and it was unclear whether they were the work of pranksters, tourists or something more malicious.

United States

A drone which landed on the lawns of the White House in January this year raised concerns over drone laws in the country.

A 2012 law requires the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to integrate drones into the National Airspace System by this September. But the deadline is unlikely to be met as the agency struggles with the unprecedented challenge of regulating unmanned aircraft.

In the meantime, recreational users can fly their drones, or model aircraft, but are subject to safety guidelines, including not flying above 122m and being able to see their drones at all times.

Commercial entities, such as movie studios and even wedding photographers, are largely disallowed from using drones unless they obtain an exemption from the FAA.

Airspace over Washington and national parks are strictly off-limits.

In February this year, the FAA proposed regulations to lift the current ban on the commercial use of drones weighing less than 25 kg while imposing restrictions. The planned restrictions include no flying beyond line of sight, no night-time flights and no operating near people.

The FAA also said it is also considering creating a category of "micro" drones with less regulation. These drones would weigh less than 2kg and be made of soft materials that would not hurt people in a collision.

Japan

Japan said it will strengthen legislation governing unmanned aircraft after a small drone landed on the roof of the office of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe in April.

The drone, measuring about 50cm, was equipped with a small camera. Caesium 134 and 137 were detected from a small container holding liquid, with radiation levels of about 1.0 microsievert/hour - a very low amount.

Thailand

Closer to home, Thailand recently banned the use of personal drones. Those using drones for valid purposes such as research and education must apply for a permit and meet a list of stringent criteria.

Illegal use of drones is punishable by a year in prison and a 40,000 baht (S$1,580) fine.

Malaysia

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Fears of another aviation tragedy in Malaysia were raised when a recent photo of a recreational drone landing on the runway at Kuala Lumpur International Airport went viral.

Under existing laws, the flying of unauthorised drones or unmanned aerial vehicles within the area of airports is strictly prohibited.

Sources: Civil Aviation Authority of Singapore, AFP, Bloomberg, The Star, Techinasia.com