Drone technology developing quickly but regulations evolving too slowly: Experts

An Airspace Systems Interceptor autonomous aerial drone flies during a product demonstration in Castro Valley, California.
An Airspace Systems Interceptor autonomous aerial drone flies during a product demonstration in Castro Valley, California. PHOTO: REUTERS

SINGAPORE - Gleaming in the desert sun and handled by masked Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) extremists, the sleek drone looked out of place in the sand.

Playing back part of a recent ISIS propaganda video for emphasis, Mr Angus Scott, a drone piloting instructor based in Hong Kong, spoke about the need to combat maliciously piloted drones at the Drone Asia conference held at Marina Bay Sands on Wednesday (April 5).

But, he said, existing civil aviation regulations drafted by the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO) typically leave security agencies of its member states with their hands tied.

Under ICAO statutes, it is an offence for a person to interfere with any aircraft in flight - including drones.

"The problem is using certain types of equipment to intercept drones may actually be illegal, although it seems like a good idea and we all think the police should have the right to do that," said Mr Scott in an interview with The Straits Times.

The 52-year-old was consulted by the Hong Kong Police Force on mitigating the airborne threats posed by drones, especially to high-profile individuals.

"By pointing a radar jammer... at an aircraft, you have got to consider what is going on behind that aircraft - it could be a manned aircraft coming in to land and you (will) affect its flight systems."

He cited "a country (that) has a major celebration or festival coming up" as one potential scenario of drones being used disruptively. Disgruntled individuals may fly drones with provocative banners near important areas, he said.

Both Mr Scott and conference moderator Peter van Blijenburgh agreed that governments worldwide need to better respond to the meteoric rise of civilian-operated drones.

"The big problem is that regulatory authorities work slower than technology gets developed," said the chief executive of Blyenburgh and Co, a French strategic consultancy specialising in remotely-piloted aircraft systems.

He told The Straits Times most drone manufacturing start-ups lacked aeronautical experience.

"They do not understand that there is an aviation culture based on safety," he said, adding that regulatory authorities globally tended to lack resources.

In aviation, the required operating standards are produced by the industry, rather than the authorities, he added.

Drone makers remain incapable of defining such standards with conviction, he said.

"The work is being done by aviation companies working together with drone companies, but it is going too slowly.

"We cannot get regulatory systems in place if we do not have the standards; the two go in parallel."

He added that the misuse of drones should fall under existing laws and any new regulatory framework should focus on ensuring public safety.