By Courtney Trenwith
The UAE’s civil aviation authority last week said it would introduce strict regulations governing the use of drones — the only GCC state to do so — at a time when a worrying majority of business leaders concede they don’t understand the legal implications of a technology that is bound to impact their industries
Remote-controlled drones are making life easier for a gamut of businesses, from farmers to utilities and delivery firms. But the new technology is also causing almost as many problems.
While the financial savings and productivity delivered by drones is enticing a quick take up, regulators have been slower to react, creating a potentially dangerous gap between the use and abuse of the technology.
“Like many different types of technology, the technology always comes first with all the opportunities that go with it, then regulation and liability tend to catch up later,” Robert Bond, head of data protection and cyber security at Charles Russell Speechlys law firm, says.
A study recently carried out by YouGov on behalf of the law firm found a third of business decision makers (34 percent) say they are already using drones or they will be in the future. The figure rises to more than half within the construction and real estate industries, and over a third in the retail sector.
But the most stark finding was that more than half (55 percent) of those that predict the use of drones in their industry say they lack knowledge about the rules and regulations, potentially leaving them open to legal action for breaches of security, privacy or no-fly zones.
“The company will say ‘this drone does great things, let’s buy it and let’s do stuff with it’ and then nobody thinks about the legal liability and regulatory risks and so on, because there’s no warnings. We haven’t seen a great deal of guidance from regulators around the world,” Bond says.
In a bid to remove some of the ambiguity and pre-empt potential issues, last week the UAE’s General Civil Aviation Authority (GCAA) announced it would introduce tougher regulations on the sale and operation of drones.
The regulations will focus on imports, sales and performance and would include separate regulations for heavier drones and pilotless aircraft, a GCAA statement on September 26 said. The authority is also developing a faster drone approval system, which it says should make airspace safer. It is yet to reveal details or a date for the new regulations.
The UAE, Kuwait and Qatar are the only GCC states that allow the use of drones by the public, provided users have a government permit and they are used under certain restrictions including that they are not flown over military installations or public crowds or near airports, and are only operated during daylight hours and clear weather. Qatar also has restricted their height limit to 122 metres.
Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and Oman have outright banned the use of unmanned aerial devices, according to UAV Systems International. Despite being allowed to operate in Kuwait and Qatar, there is little use of drones commercially there.
Within the UAE, the Dubai government has actively implemented the technology into many of its services. It also has been more proactive in creating some boundaries on the public use of drones; the emirate’s aviation authority has established four drone no-fly zones around Dubai International Airport, Al Minhad Air Base, Skydive Dubai and Al Maktoum International Airport, as well as a permit system to fly drones in nine designated areas, including Downtown Dubai around the Burj Khalifa and the Skydive Dubai desert campus.
At the same time, GCAA and other Dubai government entities have been leading the development and use of drones, including a remotely piloted aircraft system developed in Dubai for surveillance.
Dubai Silicon Oasis Authority (DSOA), for example, has been using drones to perform security patrols at the free zone technology park for the past year.
Equipped with a high-resolution camera and super-sensitive microphone, the drones record audio-visual data and capture still photographs, the DSOA said. It had planned to extend its single drone to five but that is yet to happen.
At the time of the launch, Khalil Odeh Shalan, vice president of operation and facilities, said the drone’s security surveillance would “not compromise the privacy of residential or commercial properties at DSO”, without detailing how. The remote-controlled technology, he added, would “significantly enhance the security team’s response time and help us monitor the premises with ease”.
The DSOA declined to respond to questions on how successful the programme had been, including how it had dealt with any privacy concerns.
Drones are also finding plenty of use at the Dubai Electricity and Water Authority (DEWA), including the monitoring of overhead power lines and monitoring of contractors carrying out maintenance and repairs in remote locations.
The utility company says drones have improved operational efficiency, and increased safety during regular network testing and maintenance.
Meanwhile, Dubai Civil Aviation Authority (DCAA) is currently drafting a regulatory framework for a new trading platform to be implemented with the Dubai Multi Commodities Centre (DMCC). It is being written in consultation with the Dubai Department of Economic Development (DED) in a sign of the valuable financial benefit of encouraging the use of drones, in the proper manner.
The emirate also has been instrumental in the development of drones through its Drones for Good programme, which is one of the only awards in the world that offers prizes of AED1m ($370,000) within the UAE and $1m internationally for innovators who create constructive uses for drones.
Other emirates such as Ras Al Khaimah have deployed camera-equipped drones to monitor emergency situations, such as traffic jams and accidents, by live-streaming photos and videos to a central police operating room.
The lack of regulation surrounding drones in the GCC is not unusual; few jurisdictions around the world have enacted precise rules governing their use.
The US was the most recent, introducing explicit legislation in August. The new drones law has been criticised for being too restrictive, including limiting the ambitions of firms such as Amazon and Google, which are working on high-tech robotic delivery projects.
Dave Vos, the man leading Google’s experimental drone delivery programme, Project Wing, said in July that the rise of drones was comparable to that of the internet in the 1990s; its phenomenal usage was partly due to a lack of government regulation that could have hindered growth.
In other areas including the Gulf, users have been left to make assumptions based on existing laws such as those relating to civil aviation, the collection of data and privacy, none of which have direct reference to drones.
And while regulators are catching up in terms of writing down the law, there has been little to no enforcement of existing rules.
There are no known convictions of violating drone rules in the GCC and none against businesses worldwide, although there have been charges laid against some individual users who have flouted no-fly rules in the UK, Canada and the US.
Dubai authorities have not made public whether they managed to track down the owner of a drone that caused Dubai International Airport to close down for more than an hour on June 11, for example.
Similarly, the general public’s little understanding of the impact of drones also means there have been few complaints at a civil level. But industry experts say this will change as the technology become more widely adopted and more visible. As with tracking devices and closed-circuit television (CCTV), the misuse of such technology is often only recognised after the fact.
“I don’t think it’ll be long before there are more investigations and enforcements brought — certainly in Europe and the US — against commercial use of drones,” Bond says. “I think for many businesses that are multinational and operating in the Gulf — because most of them wish to be perceived as compliant, well-managed multinational organisations — they will probably be applying the same principles of good conduct to operations of drones in the Gulf as they would do to operating in any other part of the world.
“Obviously, at the moment there just aren’t the regulators there to bring any actions so there is a sort of lacuna at the moment. But we know that a number of Gulf countries are looking at implementing data privacy or data protection style laws and if they emulate what happens in Europe they’ll certainly be saying that using drones with camera has the potential to be an invasion of privacy.”
While currently the focus is on filling gaps in the rules, in the end, governments may end up competing against each other in the area of drone regulation. In an era when technology and innovation are crucial to economic growth, tighter rules on the use of drones could do more harm than good.
Similar to businesses relocating their operations to countries with more lax tax laws, the same may eventually occur in relation to drones.
Business Insider Intelligence forecasts the total global spending on drones will reach $98bn by 2025 — an industry too valuable for governments to ignore.
Businesses certainly are aware of the benefits, whether they are inventing new relevant technology or applying the technology within their industry.
Bond says drones bring a quick return on investment.
“I think [drones] will be quite significant because if they’re used appropriately, they can do the work that would have taken considerably longer with on-the-foot intervention, like checking out perimeters of areas monitoring on a regular basis environmental risks but also being used as another form of delivery mechanism,” he says.
“Things like environmental and construction land management have got obvious uses, but also for medical resources to remote areas, where you can’t get the vehicle in you can get the drone in.”
But any investment can quickly turn sour if there is a lack of understanding of the impact, and that, Bond says, remains a key concern. “The other side of [the issue] is raising awareness with businesses and also individual users about the fact that this is a surveillance device, whether you intend for it to be used like that or not, it is,” he says.
“If you’re using a drone to survey the outside of residential buildings whether for land management or business management or block management — replacing windows for example — you’ve got to think about the risk of invading the privacy of residents in the building. You need to incorporate that into tenancy agreements, have policies and procedures in place to protect the data you’re collecting, given the liability that might arise if that data is misappropriated or lost.
“Whilst you may have permission to have someone’s image or to collect data for one particular reason, they may use it for entirely different reasons.”
There are some simpler issues for businesses to contend with, too. Google and Amazon, for example, are taking longer than expected to finalise their drone delivery systems — legislation aside — with considerations such as how they will operate in different weather conditions, battery life, unreliable location data and possibility of being intercepted needing to be addressed.
Suppliers utilising their service will also need to make sure that their drones come with adequate and appropriate warnings to avoid any potential product liability issues that may arise from the operation of drones, while the issue of insurance still also has not been addressed, Charles Russell Speechlys warned.
There have been some positive experiments in remote areas. After the 7.8 magnitude earthquake in Nepal in 2015, relief agencies used drones to help inform their strategy. In Rwanda, drones are delivering blood and vaccines to remote areas not easily reached otherwise.
Innovators have only touched the surface of the potential uses for drones. Likewise, lawmakers will take time to fully understand their implications.
As the industry inevitably progresses, businesses also cannot afford to keep their heads low, or they may just miss a flying opportunity.