When a remotely piloted aircraft loaded with radioactive sand was found on the Japanese prime minister's office late April, it raised alarm over the security risks posed by the growing number of unmonitored drones buzzing around.
When it comes to drones, the Asia-Pacific region faces the same challenges as the rest of the world: lack of regulations, lack of seamless integration of drones into all classes of airspace, illegal operations and lack of mature and tested technologies.
One of the key challenges is the proliferation of these aircraft. This sector has emerged as the most dynamic growth area in the global aerospace industry this decade. Worldwide, drones are set to become big business.
A 2013 market study conducted by the Teal Group found that China was already a world leader in the use of drones. In 2013, there were over 15,000 commercial nonmilitary operators of these aircraft in the country, which is also home to the world's largest consumer drone manufacturer, DJI.
In the private sector, businesses are eager to tap the vast commercial potential of drones even though the regulatory framework is either absent or unclear.
Amazon.com, for example, is testing a home delivery service for small packages using the machines. Google has also launched a similar project, called Project Wing, originally meant to deliver defibrillators to heart attack victims within two minutes. The project has now shifted to the more general problem of same-day product deliveries and disaster relief.
The Amazon and Google programs are receiving most of the media attention, but trials for similar services are also underway in the Asia-Pacific region. Shanghai YTO Express, a Chinese logistics company, has conducted trials involving delivering tea by drones. The Indian government has tried using the company's aircraft in its fight against rhinoceros poaching. In Australia, a number of organizations are jointly developing a low-altitude unmanned air traffic control system for drones.
But there remain plenty of challenges for aerial delivery services, which must be able to operate in all weather, day and night, deliver without incident and be cheap to operate. Drones would have to fly autonomously, which requires sensors and software that can map the environment in three dimensions and navigate on the fly. Such technology is not yet viable.
Nicholas Roy, a robotics professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, believes a number of technical hurdles still must be overcome, such as short battery life, unreliable location data and the effects of high winds and other weather conditions. We can add to these the lack of mature capability to detect and avoid other aircraft, and coping mechanisms for dealing with loss of the command and control data link.
But generally speaking, companies conducting trials are doing so in a safe, methodical way over a span of years. This will assist in the development of proper procedures and processes that take into account the work of regulators.
Leading the way
The regulation of civilian drone use in the Asia-Pacific region is well in line with the rest of the world and, in some cases, playing a leading role.
Japanese aviation laws have no existing restriction for flying drones at or below 250 meters above the ground except over flight routes. But after the incident at the prime minister's office, the Tokyo Metropolitan Government has banned the flying of drones in 81 parks and gardens. The Japanese government is also drafting legislation that will ban the machines from flying within 300 meters of major buildings.
The Civil Aviation Administration of China has detailed rules that apply to different drone categories. For example, there are dedicated flight areas for these aircraft -- though drones can operate outside those zones if approved -- and operators of models weighing more than 7kg must obtain a license. Operators of drones that weigh more than 116kg and which fly in nonsegregated airspace must have a pilot's license.
In Singapore, the civil aviation authority is currently streamlining its regulations. Drones weighing less than 7kg can be flown for recreational and private uses without a permit, apart from certain restrictions. New rules require a permit for drones used for commercial purposes or specialized services, such as surveying or giving aerial performances.
On a global level, the International Civil Aviation Organization's Remotely Piloted Aircraft Systems Panel is developing international standards and recommended practices. These steps, and the work of leading drone manufacturers, should provide local governments valuable cues when creating their own regulatory frameworks.
Identifying the similarities and differences between manned and unmanned aircraft is the first step toward developing a sound regulatory framework that will provide, at a minimum, an equivalent level of safety for the integration of drones in all classes of airspace.
This will be a long process that requires the development of new technologies. Part of the process should also include educating companies and the general population.
James Coyne is the technical director of UAS International, which provides sales, training and consulting services on unmanned aircraft systems in the Asia-Pacific region. He spent over 21 years with the Civil Aviation Safety Authority Australia and helped develop the country's unmanned aircraft regulations. He served as co-chairman of the International Civil Aviation Organization's Unmanned Aircraft Systems Study Group from 2010-14.