Do Not Shackle Hong Kong’s Technological Future by Overregulating Drones

Prof YU Hongyu, Associate Professor of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering, examines the three-month drone regulation proposals put out by the Civil Aviation Department in late 2017.

Prof. YU Hongyu, Associate Professor of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering, HKUST

Unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) started to gain attention in US military operations more than a decade ago, but nowadays, the public enjoy flying drones for photography and videography purposes. Drones are also gaining widespread acceptance for goods delivery, surveying and scientific research.

I have two recreational drones, so I was eager to examine the three-month drone regulation proposals put out by the Civil Aviation Department in late 2017. Overall, there are six recommendations regarding the UAS regulatory regime, including the establishment of a UAS registration system, risk-based classification of UAS operations, training and assessment requirements, drone maps for UAS operators, insurance requirements for UAS, and indoor operations of UAS. These recommendations are sound, but a number of salient issues were omitted.

The first is the absence of regulation on drone manufacturer. The proposals focus on how users should deal with drones, but when we are discussing safety issues concerning the use of UAS, is it not vital that we have to make sure UAVs (unmanned aerial vehicles) are safe in the first place? Just like there are regulations on vehicle standards and permissible modifications in Hong Kong, manufacture of UAVs should be under similar regulatory framework.

Many of us are familiar with the Shenzhen-based drone maker DJI, but there are a growing number of other manufacturers that cater especially to the commercial and non-recreational market. Regulating the manufacturing quality of these drones themselves is imperative regardless the target market and deserves as much attention as how drones are used.

Another critical differentiation must be made is between recreational, commercial and scientific use, which are developed in schools, research institutes or universities for education and scientific exploration. We should not overregulate drones that are flown for recreational purposes; for instance, Hong Kong does not offer enough outdoor entertainment for children, and it would be a shame if our next generation cannot interact with these fascinating devices due to overly stringent regulations. Further, the limitation on scientific drone use should be minimum to promote science adventure spirit in Hong Kong while we have enough safety measures.

On the other hand, I believe comprehensive regulations for commercial UAS is absolutely crucial. There are already trials for drones that can carry people, and as with any motorized passenger vehicles (be they cars, airplanes or boats), safety is paramount.

The same applies to goods delivery drones which are mostly used to transport small and light packages at the moment, but it is only a matter of time before commercial drones capable of flying bulky and potentially dangerous items come to the market.

There is also talk of establishing standards to unify drone regulations worldwide. Applying this to commercial drone operations is sensible, since this helps manufacturers develop and sell standardized UAVs that are legally compliant across the globe. It would also help if there is a clear-cut definition between commercial and recreational drones – operating height, size of drones and other parameters can be added to the equation.

However, enforcing a global regulation on scientific drones may stifle research and experimentation on this still nascent technology. Safety is essential, but we have to strike a balance between advancing drone technology and ensure they are safe to use.

The article was published in The Standard on June 19, 2019.

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