Heads in the clouds

Pressure increases for more of China’s drone fans to fly them safely


Since the start of 2016 there have been at least eight major drone accidents – one saw an unmanned aerial vehicle crash into a Munich autobahn, another collided with a Boeing 747 in Mozambique.

China has had a few accidents too compelling the Civil Aviation Administration of China (CAAC) to devise regulations for “small and light unmanned aircraft” – i.e. drones.

According to Hogan Lovells, a law firm, Beijing’s rules divided smaller and lighter drones into seven weight categories, ranging from the smaller hobbyist models to larger working units such as crop dusters.

Most of the smaller personal use drones would be defined as Type 1 or Type 2. Type 1 models (weighing less than 1.5kg) are hampered with fewer restrictions: the only requirement from the CAAC is that they are “operated safely”, Hogan Lovells reports. Type 2 drones (weighing between 1.5-7kg) are subject to more specific rules: “Those [Type 2 drones] are required to install and use the ‘electronic fence’, connect with the UAS Cloud, and report every minute”.

The ‘electronic fence’ is a collection of virtual perimeters that define various no-flight zones for drones, such as airports or government centres. The “UAS Cloud” is the management system that uses GPS to track drones and recognise when they breach any part of the “electronic fence”.

That all sounds sensible but the problem is that thousands of drone owners aren’t registering for the cloud management system at a time in which accidents and near-misses are becoming more commonplace.

Last year one drone collided with power lines in Sichuan province, for instance, causing an electricity blackout that took six hours to fix. And according to Huxiu, a portal, the first week of February saw a series of incidents in which drone pilots disrupted the flight paths of passenger jets. On February 2 alone hobbyists caused nine flight delays.

News of the disruptions put the onus on the dominant manufacturer DJI, which has grabbed 70% of the commercial drone market in China (see our first mention of the company in WiC259), to publish a list of suggestions to prevent their reoccurrence.

Most of the recommendations aren’t new, however. For example, DJI proposes strict no-fly zones around airports and the installation of software that limits a drone’s altitude when it approaches these areas. This is a function that DJI already incorporates into its products, but which can be circumvented if the drone’s GPS is switched off.

As Huxiu notes, DJI is an ambassador for drone technology. That means DJI will also suffer more than most if the rulemakers decide that more heavy-duty regulations are required. Huxiu warns it should watch what’s happening to Didi, China’s equivalent of Uber, which is struggling with regulatory changes.

Mindful of the situation, DJI announced a partnership this month with the Academy of Model Aeronautics (AMA), an aircraft model association with almost 200,000 members worldwide, to promote drone safety training. Its leadership in this field is good news for another organisation that should also take more responsibility for reducing the bout of safety breaches in China.

U-Cloud is charged by the aviation regulator with maintaining the cloud management system supposed to prevent drones from entering no-fly zones. According to Sixth Tone, all drone pilots are required to register their drones with U-Cloud and, so far, 7,000-8,000 Chinese drones have been properly recorded. But consultants IDG report that 390,000 consumer drones were sold in China last year, suggesting it is massively undersubscribed.

Educational efforts like the training programmes planned by DJI and the AMA might help, but Sixth Tone says the main problem is that the legal consequences for breaking the rules aren’t clear enough. That may soon change. Last month a man was arrested for flying his drone too close to Hangzhou airport and the ministry of public security has been pushing for 5 to 10 days’ detention for rulebreakers. The new law is currently at the consultation stage, the newspaper says.

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