By Annette Chrysostomou
A LUFTHANSA plane carrying 108 passengers which narrowly avoided hitting a possible drone fewer than 100 metres away during a landing at Warsaw’s international airport on Tuesday has reignited safety and security fears surrounding the rapid increase in the public use of drones.
The sales of drones in Cyprus have mushroomed in recent years, yet there are few enforceable regulations to allay public fears over safety, personal privacy and security issues. Such regulations would also benefit drone enthusiasts themselves as they could then relax into their hobby knowing exactly what the rules are and ensuring they are not upsetting anyone.
“Now you can find a few thousand amateur drones everywhere in the streets and on the beach in Cyprus,” said Manos Manoli, one of the first to own a drone in Cyprus. Only three years ago, he bought one in parts, as they were not widely available for sale.
“You can buy them ready to fly in Cyprus shops now; they are available in the malls and from several dealers.” Just two years ago, he hit the market with ‘Cyprus from Air’, a company using drones for aerial photography and videography.
Basic drones are no more than small remote-controlled helicopters with a fashionable name. They have a very short battery life and are unable to fly higher than three metres.
While there is no upper price limit, Manoli said “a proper one with GPS stabilisation will set you back around 1200 euros”.
These can fly far higher but the GPS, in accordance with European directions, limits the height to 400 feet (122 metres). While the GPS can be disabled, users will get several warnings if they try to do so. In addition, even if someone flies their drone higher than 400 feet, it would only be able to do so for fewer than nine minutes due to the maximum flight time of around 15 minutes and the time it takes to climb and land.
“Ninety-nine per cent use them for hobbies,” Manoli said.
Though the definition of a drone is simply an unmanned aircraft, the term is increasingly used for gadgets with an attached camera, as the purpose for most users is taking pictures and filming videos.
Earlier this month, Australian Cypriot Marios Demetriou’s drone photograph of a ‘Where’s Wally’ group during the Limassol carnival this year was awarded first place in Dronestagram’s annual competition, which was judged by National Geographic senior staffers. Dronestagram is an app devoted to drone photography.
Marios Louka, manager of the dealership Photoshine in Cyprus confirms the rapid growth of the industry.
“The sales of drones have doubled from 2013 to 2014 and again the following year,” he told the Sunday Mail. His company sells sophisticated drones and he gives all his customers basic lessons in flying. This year he has also organised an event where he trained new pilots and explained EU legislation to them. Whenever he makes a sale, he also hands out instructions.
“Our definition is that everything that flies over 30 metres is an aircraft,” said a spokesperson from the civil aviation department.
While such higher flying aircraft are heavier and should logically be considered more dangerous than the low-flying toys, both dealers and the civil aviation department say the opposite is the case.
“You can send your kids to Jumbo and buy one, and someone inexperienced like that might hit someone, though they are light,” said Romos Kotsonis, from ‘Cyprus from Above’ a company which also specialises in aerial photography.
While the users should be over 18, there is no local law that states children are forbidden to use them. In practice, the relatively high price of the more sophisticated drones means that “you will not find them in the hands of kids”. In addition drones need a certain knowledge of flying which means children have to be supervised by adults.
In the more sophisticated drones, there are many built-in features that prevent problems. Many can navigate around obstacles and return to their owners when the battery is running low.
As the near miss with the Lufthansa flight made clear, the possibility of drones hitting airplanes particularly near airports where planes fly low is a legitimate fear.
Kotsonis points out that manufacturers have already coded into the drones the non-fly zones in Cyprus and that these specifications cannot be overwritten. He is convinced that even in the future, with a rise in numbers, technological advances will enable manufacturers to build in adequate checks.
He explains that when a drone approaches an airport, it is automatically stopped. As the drone gets closer it is forced to loose height gradually until it has to land.
The civil aviation department spokesperson said that EU directives include a safety distance of 6km from airports. She stated that so far there have been no violations. But she conceded that if a drone user deliberately did not inform civil aviation and was able to remotely control a drone from a distance, an accident was possible.
In light of the fast rise in popularity of drones, the main problem is for civil aviation authorities to update laws and create new regulations.
“In Cyprus we follow EU directions and police intervene when there is a violation of privacy or there has been a third-party damage like a person has been hit. Otherwise there is no real enforcement. You will be arrested though if you fly over a military camp,” said one Cypriot drone owner. Another one mentioned that there is sometimes some control by security staff at the marinas.
The civil aviation department confirms that these are only directives, saying that “national regulations will take some more time, maybe until early next year or in the middle of next year.”
The department is also waiting for new EU regulations to be released. The EU is coming closer to getting its own laws on civil drone use. According to an announcement by the European Parliament, a report on their safe use by British MEP Jacqueline Foster is going to be voted on by the transport committee in September and if approved, will go on to a plenary vote in October.
After the regulations have been passed, civil aviation staff in Cyprus are planning to cooperate with police and other authorities on their enforcement of the law.
In the meantime, those who are planning to fly over sensitive areas such as antiquities or military installations are supposed to fill in a form requesting permission. Asked how many people fill in such forms, the civil aviation official replied “Just a few, fewer than 10 operators”.
As well as the permission from civil aviation, those who fly over populated areas need insurance coverage.
But it is not clear how many actually follow these rules, or how strictly they are enforced.
“This is a new area and we are trying our best,” said the civil aviation official.
The other big issue is personal privacy – the fear for instance of drones spying on you as you sunbathe topless in your garden – though professional drone users insist the public should not be concerned.
“Drones are not set up for spying. The camera has no zoom capacity and is not very sensitive. Also, it cannot see through windows. If you want to spy on someone it is easier to follow them and use your phone or spy via the internet e.g. Facebook,” Manoli said. “Also they are very noisy so they could not hover over your house without you and all the neighbours being aware of it. The cameras fly only for about 15 minutes so by the time you have reached some height you have only about 10 minutes left.”
His view is shared by Romos Kotsonis who added that in any case we can all see our houses with Google maps.
“When hovering over a swimming pool of a house with a drone, you may see that there is a person by the pool but you won’t be able to identify a face,” he said.
This may provide some reassurance for the public for the time being, but it remains to be seen if the lawmakers and law enforcement will keep up when, in the future, technological advances provide disreputable drone users with the better means to spy on others.
But for the time being, the use of drones is a good promotional tool for Cyprus.
Manoli pointed the Sunday Mail to a video on Facebook which got 9000 views in one day and has now got 22000. He has worked professionally with the antiquities department after obtaining the necessary permits for flying over specific sites. Other jobs have included working with the department of forestry and he has even been involved in the rescue of a dog. But mainly, he said, “it is about beauty.”
This is the view of other people as well and is reflected in the beautiful pictures and videos which are available on social media sites.