By Annette Chrysostomou
Drones have been in the news again recently after animal rights groups said using them to take photos of the record numbers of flamingos at Larnaca salt lake was scaring the birds.
As crowds flocked to the salt lake to see the more than 12,000 flamingos estimated to be visiting the lake, drones were used to take the best pictures which, according to the Animal Party, sent “the birds panicking and flying in all directions”.
It was the latest example of increasing drone use which, according to experts, has sky-rocketed in recent years while legislation regulating their use has failed to keep up.
A decree issued by the transport ministry in November 2015 is a step towards a more comprehensive law.
“The aim is to make people aware of the rules and to enforce the rules,” said Derek Holt, CEO of 360ifly, the only company approved by the civil aviation for flying drones in Cyprus.
“This is urgently necessary because over 500 people have bought drones in the past two years.
“They now use them everywhere, in the streets, on the beach and in gardens and it’s a big problem.”
As in other countries, Cyprus has not been able to keep up with this rapid development and is trying to catch up.
The decree needs to go through parliament, and it is likely to take some time before it becomes law. In the meantime, it at least gives the civil aviation some power to act and a basis on which to inform people on regulations they have to follow.
“Owners and operators of drones are required to comply with the provisions of the applicable legislation. Violation of the law constitutes an offence and offenders will be liable to penalties,” the civil aviation said in a statement issued this week.
“It is important to collect information,” a civil aviation department employee added, “all people have to fill in the relevant forms. We believe this is fair and simple.”
He said the department would proceed with more severe penalties and additional procedures would be bolstered when EU regulations come into force.”
“Technically, people can be prosecuted under the air law, but penalising will become more commonplace once there is a law,” Holt said.
There are two categories of drone pilots in the current decree. The first one is called the open category and is for non-commercial use. People can only fly unmanned aircraft weighing less than three kilos and the maximum flight height should not exceed 50 metres above the ground or water. Drone owners have to keep their aircraft in direct sight, and the law is that they should not be further away than 500 metres.
“That makes sense,” Holt said. “What is the point in having them if you can’t see what they are doing. Actually, we recommend only 100 metres so that you can monitor the flight and also check on the state of the battery to safely bring them down before the battery runs out.”
Drones are only allowed to fly at a distance of one kilometre from residential areas and 500 metres from people. So, it’s not allowed to actually use one for taking pictures of a wedding? The answer depends. No, if the wedding is in the centre of a town. If it isn’t, it can be done if the photographer gets the consent of all the participants. The same goes for taking pictures of places. If it is a hotel, the owner must consent and in turn inform the hotel guests.
The second category for which regulations are specified in the decree is called the ‘special category’. This includes all commercial activities such as agricultural inspections, aerial photography and mapping. The criteria for those are much more stringent. Professionals need an operating permit and an unmanned aircraft pilot licence.
This all sounds relatively clear cut, but the big question concerns who will enforce the regulations.
In theory, it is the aviation department, but in practice it is highly likely that police will do at least part of this job as the civil aviation doesn’t have the resources.
Despite the lack of a fully comprehensive law, quite a few privacy rights are in place that can be applied to drones. For example, people have called the police when drones flew over their property and police have issued warnings to drone owners. “There are many other laws which cover parts of what people are doing,” Holt explained. “For example, there are privacy laws which don’t allow people to fly drones next to your bedroom. As for the flamingos, not only are they within eight kilometres of the airport, but even if they weren’t, they are in a protected area, where it is not allowed to disturb them.”