PETALING JAYA (THE STAR/ASIA NEWS NETWORK) - Malaysia's Department of Civil Aviation (DCA) is setting up its own enforcement unit to put a stop to illegal drone flying in the country.
What many drone owners in Malaysia may not realise, however, is that nearly all the flying they do outside their home compounds is considered unlawful in the first place.
A DCA spokesman said the enforcement unit, which is expected to start operations early next year, would be based at all 21 airports nationwide.
"The enforcement officers will monitor the airspace with a special radar that lets them spot drone activity in a specific area," the spokesman said.
"DCA officers will work with the police to carry out this operation," the spokesman said, adding that under Civil Aviation Regulations 2016, all drone activity - regardless of their size and purpose - needed a flying permit from the DCA.
Flights are also capped at a maximum 120m height.
Although there are laws governing drone usage, the spokesman said the DCA had not strictly enforced them so far, leading hobbyists to believe that no permit was required to fly a drone.
"Flying drones without DCA approval, whether for commercial or recreational purposes, is an offence. Those caught in the act are subject to legal action. The owners can be arrested and their drones seized," said the spokesman.
Individuals found guilty of violating the regulations could be fined up to RM50,000 (S$16,367) or jailed up to three years, or both.
Companies that fly drones illegally face a fine of up to RM100,000 and its officers jailed six months, or both.
The spokesman said the DCA did not stop anyone from flying drones but they should have a permit if they operated outside their house compounds.
"Drone owners may fly them within their own compounds up to a height of 50m. If they use the drones elsewhere, they need a DCA permit."
The owners also have to specify where they want to fly the aircraft when applying for the licence, which is valid for three months.
The DCA also plans to tighten control on drone flights by making it compulsory for owners to register the devices.
The spokesman said DCA planned to implement this in two years.
"All drones will have to carry a registration number that must be visible on the tail," he said.
The DCA is proposing a one-time registration fee of RM800 and a renewal fee of RM500 for the following year.
Currently, only drones that weigh more than 20kg need to be registered with DCA.
Malaysia Unmanned Drones Activist Society (Mudas) secretary William Alvisse said the group was aware of the plan to regulate drone activities.
"While it is good to check illegal flights, imposing an exorbitant fee to register a drone will discourage owners from registering them and keep them operating outside the law," Alvisse said.
Mudas is a non-governmental organisation devoted to the development and advancement of drones in the country.
Alvisse said many drone operators were unaware of the law requiring them to get a DCA permit.
"Many of those who use their drones for aerial photography are also unaware that they need a permit from the Department of Survey And Mapping," he added.
He said many recreational drone owners had taken things for granted, thinking that they were exempted by virtue of being hobbyists.
Industry sources estimate that some one million drones have been sold in Malaysia over the last four years.
A majority of these are "toy grade" devices that go for between RM100 and RM400 and cannot fly beyond a 25m radius of the operator.
The DCA spokesman said that under the Civil Aviation Regulations, drones were also prohibited from flying within a 7km radius of airports, royal palaces and telco base stations.
The Kuala Lumpur City Centre, where the soaring Petronas Twin Towers are located, and Putrajaya, the country's seat of government, are also considered "no-fly zones" for security purposes.