The Malta Independent 19 April 2024, Friday
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Improving our legislative frameweork for drone operations

Mark Said Sunday, 25 February 2024, 07:44 Last update: about 3 months ago

The initial popularity associated with drones was related to their use as toys. Business use has largely been a later development as the technology has improved to a point where commercial applications are both practical and financially viable. Commercial uses for drones now go beyond photography to include mapping, data gathering, tracking criminal suspects and delivery services. Part of the attraction is cost savings, which explains why the commercial drone market is expected to grow.

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Stories of drone misuse have increased in recent years around the world. Flights were disrupted, and drones were used by protestors in many countries. Until last year, drone operations in Malta were simply covered by the drone regulations put in place by the European Union Aviation Safety Agency (EASA), along with a few country-specific regulations. There was no distinction between leisure or commercial civil drone activities.

It was only recently that Parliament enacted a law that extensively regulates air navigation and ostensibly provides for better regulation of drone operations. However, perhaps the time has come for Transport Malta to signal concerns over the security implications of drone use by updating its policies.

There are three risk categories for the operation of drones. Up until a while ago, drones operated on a kind of "wild west" frontier with no firm policies for how to register unmanned aerial vehicles or how to fly them responsibly. What changes will we need to see before we encounter a full-blown drone revolution? Let us not diminish the state of drones in the modern world.

Drone technology has made astonishing progress in the past decade or so. We are already using drones regularly in several fields. These unmanned aerial vehicles are sensationalised for their potential applications in logistics, architecture, and other areas and are becoming more popular and affordable than ever before. Yet, we are still years away from seeing a fleet of drones delivering packages in our neighbourhoods, and most businesses are not utilising drones in any significant way, despite a small number expecting to use them in the future. Lately, drones are frequently used to capture establishing shots for architectural 3D rendering, and they are also being used to engage in photography and monitoring.

Better regulation would be to have in place different sets of rules distinguishing between recreational drone flyers, commercial operators, public safety or government users, and educational users. Despite some initial progress in defining regulations for drones, there are many specifics left to be decided. For example, it may take Transport Malta years to decide how to regulate drone-based package delivery. The laws dictating drone operations will be necessarily complex to account for all the ways drones are currently used and how they could be used in the future. Coming up with laws that enable innovation but restrict infringements on privacy and misuses of airspace will be incredibly difficult but necessary.

Japan’s Drone Act of 2015 is currently the most comprehensive legislation regulating drones and related issues. Surprisingly, it even provides for balloons, hang gliders, paragliders, rotorcraft, gliders, airships, and any other apparatus used for air navigation that cannot accommodate any person on board and can be operated by remote control or autopilot technologies. It is now moving to tighten its rules governing drone use to include lightweight, smaller and more sophisticated models now hitting the market, partly in response to growing concerns about accidents and irresponsible operators. Drones weighing 200 grammes or more are already covered by their law, but the revamp will include lighter ones weighing as little as 100 grammes.

The move is in response to technological advances that led to smaller and faster models deemed potentially riskier. It intends to enact tighter regulations to include smaller classes of drones that can maintain stable flight outdoors in windy conditions. Eventually, it also intends to put a regulatory system in place to encourage drone use. This would allow operators to fly drones out of their visual range in areas where people live or work. There will be rules that will help push the drone industry into the future, with the ultimate goal being to enable routine drone operations in the same airspace as manned aircraft, but a lot of hurdles have to be cleared before that is possible. Another aspect will be the remote identification of drones, the single most important element in the next evolution of drone integration.

The SESAR Joint Undertaking, a public-private partnership that coordinates EU research activities in air traffic management, has long been insisting on the need for EU member states to have in place a drone register to ensure privacy and safety. There is a fine line between the benefits of using drones and their possible misuse. Requiring drones to identify and authorise themselves before they can fly, which could be achieved by fitting them with SIM cards, could help to protect people's privacy by providing an effective way to register both users and machines.

A lot of work is still left to be done on the U-space plan, which sets out a vision for how drones can be integrated into airspace, particularly in urban environments. If it is an unregistered drone, or if it hasn’t recorded its flight in the system, the authorities can still track it, the intention being that the U-space system can track all flying drones and identify their operators, whether or not they are on an authorised mission.

Undoubtedly, Malta must follow suit. It cannot be excluded that one day Malta might become a drone nation where everything and everyone is remotely controlled.

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