The Legal Landscape for Drones in the UAE

by Latham & Watkins LLP
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The use of “unmanned aerial systems” or “drones” for commercial, government and consumer purposes has significantly increased in recent years across the globe. In the UAE, the office of H.H. Sheikh Mohammed Bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Prime Minister and Ruler of Dubai, introduced the Drones for Good Award at the Government Summit held in Dubai in February 2014 to promote the development of drone technology in the consumer market in the UAE.

This post explores the applicable federal and emirate-specific regulations, as well as the various concerns surrounding the use of drones (for commercial, government and consumer purposes).

Regulation at the Federal Level

At the federal level, the main pieces of legislation applicable to the use of drones in the UAE are Federal Resolution No. 2 of 2015 regarding Light Air Sports Practice Regulations (Federal Law) and the Civil Aviation Regulation (CAR) Part VIII Subpart 10 on the Operation of Unmanned Aerial Systems within the UAE (UAS Regulations), and at the emirate level, the Dubai Law No. 7 of 2015 on Airspace Security and Safety in the Emirate of Dubai (Dubai Law).

The Federal Law sets the framework for the use of drones in the UAE. The Federal Law defines radio controlled aircraft (RCA) as a model aircraft which is remotely controlled by a hand-held transmitter linked to a receiver within the aircraft and is within visual range. Drones would fall under the definition of RCA as they are remotely controlled by a hand-held transmitter linked to a receiver within the drone and is typically operated within visual range. Some of the requirements for the use of RCA, weighing less than 25 kg, are that they cannot (i) be equipped with a camera, (ii) exceed 400 feet in altitude, and (iii) operated within 5 km from any airport. Additionally, the operator must pass a training course at a flying club licensed by the UAE General Civil Aviation Authority (GCAA). If an RCA weighs 25 kg or more, the operator must be at least twenty-one years old and must obtain security clearance from the GCAA. The Federal Law also specifically refers to drones in Article 41 and states that it is prohibited to operate drones unless they adhere to the requirements and regulations set forth by the GCAA.

The GCAA issued the UAS Regulations which aim to establish an aviation regulatory environment to benefit from the innovative technology of drones and to establish a strong and competitive manufacturing and services industry which can compete in the global market and at the same time protect the economy, environment, safety, security and privacy of the UAE and its citizens.

The UAS Regulations classify drones by mass, capability (e.g. level of physical and operational sophistication of the drone) and the type of operator (private, commercial or state), as shown in the below table.

Category Mass User Subclass
1 5 kg and less A Private
B Commercial / State
2 More than 5 kg and less than 25 kg A Private
B Commercial / State
3 25 kg or more A Private
B Commercial / State

Private operators are those who use drones for leisure or sports purposes and commercial or state operators are those who use drones for commercial or state purposes, such as delivery of parcels, agricultural monitoring, surveillance security, etc.

The UAS Regulations further detail the requirements and restrictions for each category and subclass of drones. It is important to note that all drones falling under the classifications 1B, 2A, 2B, 3A and 3B must be registered with the GCAA, as well as drones falling under the classification 1A if above 0.5 kg in weight.

The use of drones can be dangerous if flown in heavily populated areas or around airports and military areas. The UAS Regulations aim to improve the safety of using drones by making them as safe as manned aircraft and prevent their use from causing danger or damage to persons, property, vehicles or vessels, whether in the air or on the ground. Similarly, the Civil Code considers any harm done to another or their property as tortious. For instance, under the UAS Regulations:

  • Category 1A drones cannot go above an altitude of 400 feet, can only be operated during day time and cannot be operated over public or private property or within 5 km of airports, helicopter landing sights, and airfields
  • Category 1B drones are required to be in “working order in accordance with the supplier’s user manual”, must avoid collisions with people, objects and other aircraft, and if the operator hears or sights another aircraft the operator must immediately land the drone
  • Category 2A drones cannot go above 400 feet in altitude, drop or release any objects, and they cannot be operated near public or private property or outside areas approved by the GCAA
  • Category 2B drones are prohibited from operating in a controlled aerospace, which is defined as an aerospace with “defined dimensions within which air traffic control service is provided
  • Category 3A drones can only be operated by a person who is at least 21 years old and has obtained security clearance and such person can operate the drone only within areas specified by the GCAA
  • Category 3B drones can be operated only in an authorised aerospace and the operator must at all times give way to other aircraft and not endanger people or property.

The UAS Regulations also recognise that the use of drones “raise ethical, privacy and data collection concerns” and this is in line with a number of regulations in the UAE, such as the Penal Code, the Cyber Crimes Law and the Copyright Law. A clear example of this is the restriction on the use of cameras or any other scanning or surveillance equipment. Under the UAS Regulations the use of cameras or any other scanning or surveillance equipment is prohibited on drones used for non-commercial purposes. Although cameras or any other scanning or surveillance equipment can be used on commercial or state operated drones, security permission from the GCAA is required. Similarly:

  • The Penal Code prohibits taking a photograph of a person without their consent
  • The Cyber Crimes Law prohibits the use of a computer network or any electronic system to invade the privacy of another person, such as taking a photograph of a person without their consent or transferring, disclosing, copying or saving electronic photographs. Failure to adhere to this provision may lead to imprisonment of at least 6 months and a fine of not less than AED 150,000 and not more than AED 500,000, or both
  • The Copyright Law prohibits the storing, exhibiting, publishing or distribution of a photograph of another person without their consent. A penalty of imprisonment not exceeding 6 months and a fine may be imposed on anyone who breaches this provision.

Regulation at an Emirate-Specific Level

The Dubai Law regulates the aviation industry in Dubai and authorises the Dubai Civil Aviation Authority (DCAA) in monitoring and protecting the safety and security of Dubai’s aerospace, including, but not limited to, the use of drones. The Dubai Law prohibits any act or activity which may compromise aerospace safety in Dubai and this would be applicable to operators of drones in Dubai. The Dubai Law requires all operators of any civil aviation related activity, which presumably would include operators of drones (commercial and non-commercial), to obtain prior authorisation from the DCAA, and such authorisation is valid for a period of one year. In addition, any person who compromises aerospace safety, may face imprisonment or a fine or both. The Dubai Law does not specify the length of imprisonment nor the fine payable. However, it does state that any person who breaches any provisions of the Dubai Law may face a fine of not less than AED 1,000 and not more than AED 100,000, and if such breach is repeated within one year then the fine will be doubled, but in any case will not exceed AED 1,000,000. The Dubai Law does not state how long imprisonment would be.

Conclusion

The Dubai Roads and Transport Authority announced earlier this month that it will be launching autonomous drones this summer which will transport passengers around Dubai. Such initiatives show that the UAE government wants to become a strong player in the competitive global market for drones, but the laws and regulations applicable to the use of drones in the UAE impose legal risks to both commercial and non-commercial operators of drones. Those who want to operate their drones in the UAE, whether for commercial or non-commercial purposes, will need to fully understand the obligations imposed on them by these laws and regulations in addition to other regulations concerning the use of drones and privacy and data protection.

DISCLAIMER: Because of the generality of this update, the information provided herein may not be applicable in all situations and should not be acted upon without specific legal advice based on particular situations.

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