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Are you flying your drone illegally?

The drone boom has children and professional photographers hooked but the flying machines also come with problems. Philip Leone-Ganado meets the authorities looking to have some control on how and where drones are used.

Drone operators will be able to obtain a certified operating licence once new regulations are introduced in the next few years, but for the immediate future, permits will continue to be required for each and every flight.

“Malta is a peculiar and unique situation, because the entire territory is controlled airspace,” George Borg Marks, director of the Civil Aviation Directorate (CAD) within Transport Malta, told the Times of Malta.

“We do not want to remain with a situation where we need to issue a permit for every drone that flies, but right now it’s required for the public to understand what can be done and where. In the future, however, I foresee a situation similar to driving a car, where an operator will be licenced to fly in certain areas and under certain conditions.”

Such a licence, which could follow the adoption of new European flight safety regulations expected in the next two years, would see operators undertaking mandatory training and a proficiency test, after which they would be issued certification and an approved operations manual.

Drone use has enjoyed massive growth in popularity in recent years among both hobbyists and commercial operators, with EU estimates suggesting that drone activity will account for 10 per cent of the aviation market, worth up to €15 billion a year, within the next decade.

Currently, however, there exists no Maltese law governing drone use, leaving the numerous commercial operators (many offering drone photography and videography services) to apply for a permit each and every time they wish to use their drones.

Permits – which usually take around seven working days to be approved –are required for any drone larger than 250 grams, which means a number of the drone types popular with beginners and hobbyists, which can be purchased online for €100 or less, also require permission to fly.

Our goal is to ensure that aviation grows and grows safely

Permits are also accompanied by a list of conditions, largely focused on mitigating risks. Several operators who spoke to this newspaper described the system as cumbersome, particularly because there is only one local company offering insurance for drone use.

Specialist overseas companies who offer drone coverage typically require the operator to have training certification, which will not be available in Malta until specific laws are introduced.

Such a law is now likely to come with the introduction of new regulations by the European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) in late 2017 or 2018, after repeated delays in a draft legal notice issued for public consultation by Transport Malta in February 2015.

In the interim, the CAD plans to issue guidelines to operators in a bid to increase awareness of the current regulations.

Warren Brimmer from commercial operators Aerial Malta said that while his company liaised well with the CAD, the current case-by-case approach was an “added load” to operators, necessitating significant financial investment and man hours. “We dedicate significant resources to the permit acquisition process, which obviously will reflect in the end cost passed on to the client,” he said.

“From our end, although acknowledging the increased burden, we also appreciate that specific and particular aspects of operating drones within the Maltese territory presents a rather unique set of problems.

“The current ‘gung-ho’ approach taken by some local operators, together with the CAD’s lack of enforcement tools, is of great concern to us.”

Mr Borg Marks said the CAD regularly carried out inspections to ensure that permit conditions were adhered to. Enforcement options are limited, however, when it comes to ensuring that operators have applied for permits in the first place, though the CAD does call operators in for meetings when evidence of unlicensed flights – such as online footage – comes to light.

“Our main objective is to work with operators,” Mr Borg Marks said. “We have no intention of stopping the industry from growing: our goal is to ensure that aviation grows and grows safely. Those are the pillars of all our regulation.”

The authority rejected suggestions that the current approach is evidence of a slow reaction to the drone boom, with flight inspector Nigel Dunkerley insisting the regulations are actually ahead of the industry.

“We have been the pioneer European state when it comes to controlled airspace: there is no other country giving permits for drones in controlled airspace, while we’re doing it once or twice a week,” he said.

“We have to be extremely cautious, but the fact that we can do it has other European states asking how they can replicate it.

“The obstacles aren’t small, but as a regulator, we’ve always been pro-industry. Baby steps are the best way forward, because if we were to have an accident, everything would have to be rethought and the industry would suffer.”

Drone regulations at a glance

There are currently no laws on drone use in Malta, and permits of operation have to be issued on a case-by-case basis by the Civil Aviation Directorate (CAD).

The CAD does not allow drone operations over members of the public, vehicles or vessels, property, towns or villages, important buildings such as hospitals or power stations, or close to runway and airport approaches.

Operators have to submit a permit application seven working days before a flight, including the type of drone to be used, technical data or manual instructions, flight safety programmes or an operations manual, details of the operator and proficiency of the pilot, and third-party insurance.

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