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July 31, 2015

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Debate over unmanned aircraft drones on

A drone smashed into the 35th floor of the iconic Taipei 101 skyscraper in the Taiwan capital last week. The collision caused little damage but a lot of furor.

Yang Yunfan, 30, a tourist from the mainland’s Fujian Province, said he was trying to film Taipei’s scenic views when he lost control of his unmanned aerial vehicle. Officials associated with Taipei 101 later issued a statement saying it was the third drone crash at the site since mid-June.

In a world obsessed with national security and terrorism threats, the increasing popularity of recreational drones is raising concerns.

Drone technology began in the early 1900s as an offshoot of military armament development. Apart from their current use as remote killing machines in the war against terrorists, drones have entered a whole realm of commercial and recreational uses.

They are used by cinematographers, news organizations, traffic control systems, geologists, wildfire fighters, farmers and tourists. Drone racing is becoming a popular sport.

The possibilities of their application seem endless. Last month, a six-propeller drone was flown over two college entrance exam sites in central China’s Henan Province to scan for any devices smuggled into the venues by students bent on cheating.

Chinese Internet giant Alibaba and US-based Amazon are exploring their use for future delivery of merchandise ordered online.

“I have bought three drones in two years,” James Zhou, a high school chemistry teacher told Shanghai Daily. “Crashing many times, two of them were broken. Now I have a new toy, with a higher definition standard, and it eliminates the ‘fisheye’ lens image effect of the older models.”

The new “toy,” made by Da-jiang Innovations, cost Zhou over US$1,000. Prices vary widely, from a few hundred yuan to several hundred thousand yuan. Shenzhen-based Da-jiang is one of the world’s biggest makers of consumer drones, selling thousands of its four-propeller Phantom helicopters.

The proliferation of drones is fanning a debate about regulation.

In March, a drone became stuck in a 10,000-volt power line in the Songjiang District, Shanghai. It was safely removed, but the electricity company said it could have cause a massive power outage.

More recently, drones were blamed for interfering with efforts to battle a wildfire in California, and a Lufthansa plane with 108 passengers on board nearly collided with a drone at Warsaw’s main airport.

Chen Jinsong, safety manager of the Model Aeronautics and Vehicle Association of Shanghai, said he went to the Civil Aviation Administration in Shanghai to find out what specific rules and regulations apply to drones.

“I waited there for three hours and I got nothing,” he recalled.

Zhou admitted that a drone can be difficult to operate. His have crashed into obstacles and once narrowly missed a running child during landing.

“I have to be more cautious,” he said. “I will fly my new drone low and in open areas until I am confident I can control it. Otherwise, I’m going to lose another drone, or, worse, hurt someone.”

He added, “I have no idea whether there are restrictions in different areas in Shanghai about flying drones.”

According to Chen there are only two clear rules in Shanghai pertaining to drones: They can’t be flown near airports and they can’t fly higher than 120 meters.

Many drone hobbyists have no clue about restrictions.

On July 15, a drone disrupted the airspace of the runways of Chengdu Shuangliu International Airport in southwestern China, causing flight delays.

Shanghai Daily tried to contact the Public Security Bureau and the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology in Shanghai for information on drone regulations, but has yet to receive a reply.

“The distinction between drones and model planes is blurry,” said Chen, an aficionado of remote-control model planes for over 10 years.

The drones many people are using are somewhat like remote-control model planes, equipped with computerized drone technology, he said. For real drones, a user need only set the program on the computer of a drone and it can fly from Shanghai to Beijing without manual controls.

The General Administration of Sport has 27 training institutions for remote-control planes around China. Chen works for the institute in Shanghai. He estimates that over 70 percent of drone users aren’t members of the association.

“Regulation of unmanned aerial vehicles is a global conundrum,” he said.

It’s not that official agencies aren’t looking at the problem.

The Ministry of Industry and Information Technology is working on a classification management system for drones with other 45 departments to promote a more standardized approach, Miao Yanqing, who works in the Civil Aviation Administration in the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology, told on July 8.

The Model Aeronautics and Vehicle Association of Shanghai said it is working with authorities on rules to manage drones.

Under regulations expected to be introduced later this year, a license would be required for owners of drones to fly them above 120 meters. The rules will also specify where drone operation is limited or banned, according to the association.

Apart from safety and public security, privacy is another concern.

Henry Xu, who lives in suburban Shanghai, said he has a neighbor who is a drone hobbyist.

“I saw that thing flying over our living area and that was really annoying,” Xu said. “The camera might take footage of my garden, my children playing and some of our private lives. After all, it’s a model plane with a camera. I wish I could shoot it down.”

Xu did lodge a complaint with residence security officials, who stopped the neighbor’s actions.

“Drones with cameras can infringe on the privacy of others,” said Wang Weiping, a Shanghai lawyer. “Clear video images of other people can then be uploaded on social media, and then it becomes illegal.”


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