Q. How does the regulation of nonmilitary drones vary outside the United States?
Although all countries that have contemplated the integration of drones into national airspace have expressed concern about safety and privacy, drone regulation varies quite a bit by country. As one attorney advocate for drones put it, "almost every other country in the world currently provides a more hospitable environment for UAS operations than the United States."85 This section suggests that the statement may be exaggerated. As the United States has become more permissive with its regulations, other countries, initially more permissive, are becoming restrictive. Nonetheless, some of the initial disparity across countries seemed to present the prospect of opportunism, with companies relocating research and development to countries with less restrictive policies. Agricultural drone companies such as Indiana-based PrecisionHawk have indicated that will be investing more in Canada, South America, and Australia until commercial applications are more available in the United States, and Google and Amazon have largely done their testing outside the United States. While one argument suggests that this maintains important safety requirements, another perspective suggests that if the testing will be done anyway, it might as well remain in the United States.
Some countries such as Mexico have few to no restrictions on commercial drones. Indeed, one assessment implied that Mexican policies actually encourage drones, with the government having rewarded one young scientist for his exploration of drones. The government uses drones for drug enforcement and university research. Similarly, Brazil has not had laws specifically restricting the use of UAVs and the nation has become a popular destination for drone manufacturers, with eight in Sao Paulo alone.86 Japan has likewise embraced drone technologies, having used drones for agriculture for decades. To be sure, there are differences between the nature of farming in Japan and that in the United States. As one columnist put it, "The average Japanese rice paddy, it's safe to say, is quite a bit smaller than the average Midwestern cornfield."87 Nonetheless, AUVSI looks with envy at Japan as the model case for US commercial adoption. Once it adopted drones in 1990, Japan's rates of growth doubled in the first year and increased by 50% the following year, before tapering off as the technology became widespread across the agriculture industry.88
Canada has also been generally less restrictive in its regulation of drones, but mostly as a function of having been dilatory in creating policies consistent with the technology rather than being intentionally more lenient. Initially, it had considered unmanned aircraft under 77.2 lb. (35 kg) that were individually owned and not profit-seeking to be model aircraft that do not require permission to fly.89 This quite wide latitude has left this category of aircraft relatively unregulated, despite drones actually flying faster, higher, and farther than model airplanes. As a result, the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) proposed new rules to deal with the emerging safety risks, responding to growing concerns about the emerging and growing prevalence of the technology. Indeed, the absence of more systematic safety policies has raised red flags in Canada. One study conducted by a Canadian privacy and security group warned that since even these personal drones can be equipped with cameras, they could infringe on the privacy of Canadian citizens, and concluded that the government did not have a clear policy on those recreational drones.90
Transport Canada has been trying to stay apace with the emerging technology. The government issued its Interim Approach to the Regulation of Remotely Piloted Aircraft Systems, which was a set of proposals to be debated by the remotely piloted aircraft community. They proposed lowering the threshold for which it would regulate drones, down to 55 lb. (25 kg), as well as modifying the somewhat arbitrary distinction between recreational and non-recreational drones, while also creating a set of flight rules and evaluating the risks of individually operated drones in a more systematic way. Still, the rules governing the use of drones in Canada continue to evolve as the technology changes and proliferates. Until new rules were implemented, Transport Canada reported that it would issue exemptions to drones under 55 lb. (under 25 kg) and operating under specific conditions, including within the line of sight; otherwise, individuals require special flight operations certificates prior to use.91 Transport Canada reports that it issued 1,672 such certificates in 2014, compared to 945 in 2013, and just 345 in 2012, an increase in 485% over two years.92
A number of other countries acknowledge that they are also trailing the technology in terms of policy and regulation. The CAA in the United Kingdom acknowledged that "there are no established operating guidelines" for drones, and a University of Birmingham Police Commission report called for "urgent" measures to deal with safety and privacy concerns that the proliferation of drones would create.93 The CAA divides unmanned aircraft into two categories; those up to and including 44 lb. and those over 44 lb. Aircraft up to 44 lb. are considered "small unmanned aircraft," and require only a "Permit to Fly" classification. This classification is fairly easy to obtain and places limits on where and at what altitude one may fly the UAV. As of September 12, 2014, 365 companies had this classification. Aircraft over 44 lb., or aircraft of any size used for aerial photography, require a "Permit to Carry Out Aerial Work," which comes with more stringent restrictions, including having a qualified pilot and a certified design.94 All drones operating in Canada are currently restricted to flying no closer than 164 ft. from a building and within the line of sight of the operator. One CAA spokesman has suggested that this line-of-sight provision could be eliminated "when we see a device able to make decisions about avoiding whatever objects are out there," with operators also required to prove the safety of their devices.95
The European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) allows member states to regulate drones under about 150 kg (about 330 lb.), which essentially includes almost any conceivable drone, with quite a bit of intra-Europe variation below that threshold.96 For example, France requires that drone operators take a training course, with urban flights requiring specific government approval in advance and night-time flights prohibited. Violations face fines of 75,000 euros (about $80,000). Germany requires a special permit if the drone is heavier than 55 lb., and commercial use must be registered and approved by a local aviation authority. Other countries, like Spain, have used their latitude to ban commercial drones altogether. Europe, as with Canada, has been playing catch-up when it comes to the burgeoning drone trend and recognizes that the result is a set of quite fragmented regulatory rules. To address these shortcomings, the European Commission initiated a consultation process that would culminate in a new set of safety requirements for drones which they hope would allow it to balance safety with maintaining a lead role in developing and implementing the emerging technology.
China, with about two dozen manufacturers of drones, is one of the largest players in the drone industry. According to Aviation Week, between 2015 and 2024, China is projected to spend 25% more on the acquisition of drones. China is also home to the Aviation Industry Corporation of China (AVIC), which is expected to lead the world in drone production by 2024, with 38.7% of the market compared to Northrop Grumman's roughly 20% and General Atomics' 10% share.97 Chinese domestic regulations can appear both more liberal and more restrictive than other countries. On the one hand, China states that drones can be flown with permission and some American industry groups suggest that China has far surpassed the United States in this regard. As the International Business Times suggested, somewhat pessimistically, "it appears that the Asian nation's consumers will likely be getting their products delivered via this futuristic new version of airmail sooner than their fellow shoppers in America."98
On the other hand, the state appears to have granted permission to operate drones only to government groups or state-linked businesses that use drones for activities such as the surveillance of power lines and marine activity. As a legal scholar at the China University of Political Science and Law and director of the Aviation Law Committee of the Beijing Bar Association put it:
Civilian drones face very strict regulations on the mainland. Anything that flies, like hot air balloons or drones,
must have official permission. Our country is ready to go to war. It is always on the alert for national safety threats,
although in the case of commercial civilian drones, public safety is also at stake.
Several examples point to the high degree of restrictiveness in terms of operating drones in China. In one case, the efforts by a Shanghai bakery seeking to deliver desserts more quickly than ground traffic would otherwise permit saw their efforts thwarted. Low altitude airspace is heavily controlled by the Civil Aviation Administration. In a December 2013 incident, four UAV operators conducting surveillance of areas east of Beijing were arrested and detained on the grounds of a "crime of endangering public security." China mobilized more than 1,200 soldiers, 123 military vehicles, and two aircraft to track the drones.99
As this example suggests, regulations on civilian drones in China remain in development.100 Shunfeng Express, a parcel delivery service referred to as the "UPS of the East," has been authorized to begin testing drone delivery to remote areas of China, using an eight-propeller drone that flies at about 328 ft. (100 m).101 Drone operators, of whom there are an estimated 10,000 in China, are required to have a pilot's license for aircraft over 15 lb. Over 256 lb., operators must have both the pilot's license and drone certification. All flights must be approved in advance.102
African governments, initially permissive, are also moving toward tight regulations. Despite efforts by nongovernmental organizations to promote drones for wildlife protection, several African governments, including Kenya, have moved to ban privately owned drones mounted with cameras, citing security and privacy issues.103 One observer lamented, "drones are supposed to help us save the rhinos and the elephants—something they're not going to be able to do if they're banned." Yet Kenya did just this, banning drones and effectively grounding major anti-poaching programs, including one spearheaded by a scientist from the University of Maryland who had come up with an algorithm that predicted, based on wildlife activity and previous poaching, where poaching was likely to occur so that a drone could intercept the poacher before animals were killed. As the scientist reported, after the ban it became "open season," as animal poaching returned to prior levels.104
As this section suggests, drone laws vary widely country to country, although in general the US commercial laws were initially more restrictive, creating the unintended consequence of nudging American companies such as Amazon to limit their research and development testing to indoor facilities and overseas, where drone regulations are generally looser.105 Amazon is expected to begin delivering packages in Mumbai and Bangalore in part due to India's less stringent regulation. As the The Economic Times put it, India also "still hasn't woken up to the need for rules that will govern the use of unmanned aerial vehicles." For example, drone operators were not required to obtain permits for a number of drone activities that are prohibited in countries such as the United States.106
Google has similarly been restricted to small tests at a research facility at NASA Ames in Silicon Valley and to more extensive tests in Queensland, Australia. Here it has successfully conducted 30 delivery tests of first-aid kits, water bottles, and chocolate bars. These have all been done using prototypes of fixed-wing and rotor drones through an endeavor called Project Wing, a drone-based delivery system run by the secretive Google X team, which encountered headwinds.107 Project Wing's aircraft had a wingspan of about 4.9 ft. (1.5 m) and was a cross between a helicopter and airplane, called a Tail Sitter because they sat on the ground with propellers up, and then would take off vertically before flying horizontally to their preprogrammed destination.108 Google had tested the design in Australia, which as Google put it, "has a long history of allowing civilian commercial use of UAVs (drones) so we were able to do many different tests and gather some great data about our technology."109 Australia does require that aircraft be operated in daytime, not through clouds or fog, and away from heavily populated areas, but conditions in the country are conducive to that. Through a series of tests, Google X discovered design flaws, and planned to test a new design platform, also in Australia.
Although FAA rules have been more restrictive than policies elsewhere, they have also been also under more pressure from the industry to liberalize their commercial drone policies. Compared to the 167 requests for exemption that the FAA received as of 2014, its European counterpart had had only one such request, an Airbus designed to do surveillance of oil pipes, railways, and disaster response.110 The pressure from industry in the United States, even if approvals were given on a case-by-case basis, could produce faster integration of commercial drones compared with Europe, where "the lack of industry pressure compared with the United States could drag the process even longer."111