Unmanned Aircraft (Public Safety and Security) Bill

It was reported that all commercial drone operators will need to apply for a permit. Can the Minister explain why is this requirement being imposed on all commercial operators? Is the risk posed by commercial operators higher than that of, say, hobbyists? Would it not be fairer to require permits only for drones above a certain weight or size, rather than placing a permit requirement on all commercial operators?

Speech in Parliament on 11 May 2015

Amazon's Octocopter

Mdm Speaker,

Unmanned aircraft, also known as an unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV), remotely piloted aircraft (RPA) or “drones”, are aircraft which can be operated without a human pilot on board. This Bill introduces a new regulatory framework to address security and safety concerns posed by unmanned aircraft flying in Singapore’s airspace.

Until recently, drones were better known for their ability to spy on enemy movements in the battlefield or deliver precision strikes on terrorists in troubled regions. However, in the past few years, drones have been more commonly mentioned for their commercial and civilian, rather than military, uses.

There is the “Octocopter”, which online retailer Amazon is planning to use to deliver packages in as little as half an hour after the purchase. Drones are also being used for aerial photography, patrolling of secure areas, inspecting ships and oil spills, and search and rescue operations, to name just a few.

In introducing this new regulatory framework, the Government should take care to avoid hindering commercial developments by placing too heavy a regulatory burden on the drone market. This is so that our companies and our local entrepreneurs can benefit from, and contribute to, some of the promising innovations in this exciting new space.

Drone regulations

The Bill empowers the Civil Aviation Authority of Singapore (CAAS), with the approval of the Minister for Transport, to make orders and regulations with regard to unmanned aircraft. The detailed regulations have not been spelled out in this Bill, although some have been mentioned in media reports (and in the Minister’s speech).

I would like to clarify if the following regulations are on the cards:

First, will the regulations specify that drones must keep a safety distance from persons, vehicles, buildings or structures, as well as from congested areas or large groups of people, such as sporting events or concerts?

Second, on requiring “geo-fencing”. Flying drones within 5 kilometres of an aerodrome is already prohibited under the Air Navigation Order. However, there is a risk that drone operators may unintentionally fly too close to an aerodrome or military installation. This will pose not just a security risk, but also a safety threat to aircraft taking off and landing. As such, has the CAAS considered requiring drones above a certain weight or size to be equipped with geo-fencing capabilities? Using geo-fencing, the drone can be programmed with the co-ordinates of aerodromes and security-sensitive areas in Singapore. If it tries to enter these areas, it will be forced to turn around or land. I understand that many commercial drones already come equipped with geo-fencing capabilities, so it should not pose too much of a regulatory burden for these drone operators.

Third, CAAS regulations currently prohibit a drone from being flown beyond the normal unaided “line of sight” of the person operating it. However, there are currently beyond-visual-line-of-sight (BVLOS) technologies being developed, which enable a drone operator to make course changes to avoid obstacles, including other aircraft, using on-board cameras. It was recently reported that the US Federal Aviation Administration is working with private companies to test commercial drones that can fly beyond an operator’s line of sight. This will open up the possibility for more sophisticated drone operations such as package delivery. While it is still early days for this technology, I hope that CAAS remains open to issuing permits, on a case-by-case basis, to companies to test-bed such technologies in Singapore so that we maintain an edge over our overseas competitors.

Fourth, it was reported that all commercial drone operators will need to apply for a permit. Can the Minister explain why is this requirement being imposed on all commercial operators? Is the risk posed by commercial operators higher than that of, say, hobbyists? Would it not be fairer to require permits only for drones above a certain weight or size, rather than placing a permit requirement on all commercial operators?

Fifth, if commercial operators are required to apply for a permit, then it is important that the assessment criteria for permit approvals be made transparent, in terms of the specifications of the drones, the types of commercial uses that will be allowed and whether there would be any requirements for operators in terms of training and qualifications. If this law is to be effected on 1 June 2015, which is just over two weeks from now, then sufficient time must be given to operators obtain the permits without interrupting operations.

And sixth, CAAS has said it will serve as a one-stop centre for all drone permit applications. This is a welcome move. I hope this will help reduce red tape and the time taken for permit approvals. Can the Minister share what the typical waiting time for a permit approvals is expected to be, so that commercial operators can better plan their schedules and operations?

Security

I have some security concerns about the risk of drones being used for terrorist activities. While this Bill will probably be effective in preventing law-abiding drone operators from unintentionally causing harm to persons and property, it is unlikely to stop a determined terrorist from using a drone to fly explosives, or chemical or biological agents into key installations or large crowds, causing mayhem, fatalities and serious injuries.

It is important that our security agencies develop plans for detecting, intercepting and taking down rogue drones. These include acquiring systems to “detect and defeat” drones. I note that Clauses 13 and 17 give the authorities the power to direct a drone operator to change course or assume control of the drone, by force if necessary, to end the flight of the drone in the fastest and safest practicable way.

However, detecting and defeating rogue drones is not a straightforward task. Most drones are small, move slowly and fly low, which makes it difficult for radar to detect them. To “defeat” a detected drone by shooting it down or jamming its control signals could risk injuring innocent bystanders when it plunges to the ground, particularly if it contains a hazardous payload.

According to The Economist, there are currently systems that can hijack a drone’s navigation and control systems, and fly it to a desired location, or to use another drone to catch the rogue drone in a net. In addition, there are technologies available to track the control signals of a rogue drone back to its human operator, and intercept the operator. Has the Government already acquired such systems to deal with rogue drones?

Also, will there be any enhanced penalties for anyone convicted of using a drone to carry out a serious crime, as is being proposed in the state of Washington in the US?

Privacy

Finally, this Bill does not appear to address data protection or privacy issues with regards to the use of drones. My concern is mainly with the possibility of drones being used to take photographs of people or private property in a manner that infringes individuals’ privacy. Do current laws already provide for data protection and privacy from drones? I hope the Minister can explain how these laws are adequate and what the penalties are for violators.

Madam, I support the Bill.

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