With no place left to fly, drone users complainLast year, Mr. Won attended a rejuvenile fair where, he says, he “found the perfect toy for adults” and purchased a flashy new drone right on the spot.
But the 30-year-old Seoul resident was crestfallen to learn that his 400,000 won ($334) gadget was all but a complete waste of money, as there were too many barriers to flying a drone outside his home. Indeed, despite growing interest in drones, places in Korea where users can actually fly them are few and far between.
In Won’s case, his house was located in Yeonhui-dong, Seodaemun District, western Seoul, the site of many public institutions including the Korea National Police Agency, eight universities and 317 hospitals. Consequently, the skies outside his doorstep were designated a no-fly zone.
Won then tried his luck along the Han River, but it was teeming with pedestrians. “I don’t know why there are so many obstacles,” he said. “I visited the outskirts of Seoul several times to fly the drone, but now I’m completely over it.”
According to the Aviation Act, drones are banned from northern Seoul. Areas around the Military Demarcation Line and nuclear power plants are also no-fly zones. Furthermore, users are barred from flying their drones at night or when there is heavy yellow dust or fog that blocks a clear view of the drone.
“People can’t fly drones in northern Seoul because of key facilities in the area, while southern Seoul is also suspended due to its concentrated population,” said Yang Hyun-mo, head of the Korean support site for drone users, Dronestarting. “Considering this, people are left with five options - Pungnap-dong and most of Gangdong District in southeastern Seoul, Gaebong-dong and most of Geumcheon District in southwestern Seoul, and southern Seoul’s Nanhyang-dong.”
But the hurdles don’t stop there. In order to fly drones, users need to obtain a permit from the Ministry of Land, Infrastructure and Transport.
“Just as drivers must abide by traffic rules, there are comparable rules for air traffic, and we’re building the system step-by-step,” said an official from the Aviation Policy Bureau.
“Drone users may feel current regulations are stiff, but we’re imposing similar levels of restrictions as those in China, the U.S. and Europe.”
To those asserting more areas should be rid of such restrictions, he replied, “We’re working with the Defense Ministry and Capital Defense Command to find ways to expand permitted areas.”
Still, industry insiders are dissatisfied with the regulations.
“Other countries fly drones to measure land space without special limitations, but the process is too cumbersome in Korea,” said a 30-year-old real estate business operator surnamed Park. “To get permission from the government to take photos of the land structure, I have to submit paperwork that takes a week to process.”
And since this paperwork often contains confidential information regarding the applicant’s company, some companies prefer to skirt around the regulation and fly their drones in secret.
“Too much regulation is hindering the drone industry from thriving,” said Roh Yoon-sik, a team leader at the Korea Drone Association.
“Think about how profitable it would be for the tourism industry if they could use drones in major tourism attractions and sell photos to tourists taken by drones.”
But this isn’t currently possible. When a drone user wants to take a photo with his or her drone, even permission from the Transport Ministry is insufficient because aerial photography is regulated by multiple laws including the National Intelligence Service Act and Protection of Military Installations Act. Thus, the final decision is made by the Defense Ministry.
“Considering Korea’s unique military situation, we need a certain degree of regulation regarding aerial photography,” said a Defense Ministry official.
“We can’t go and show the public maps of the nation’s key facilities and explain the rules to them every time, so we ask them to tell us their purpose and where they intend to take the photos.
“When the distance between key facilities and the intended location falls between near and far, we grant permission under the condition that Defense Ministry guards will be present to cater to the needs of the applicants as much as possible.”
But others believe the government’s well-meaning regulations are out of step with certain practical considerations.
“Currently, the nation’s drone regulations are based on remote control planes rather than drones specifically, so there are many regulations that are unnecessary,” said Song Yong-kyu, professor of aerospace and mechanical engineering at Korea Aerospace University.
“Since drones can be used in diverse areas such as rescue action in areas out of people’s reach and deliveries at night, we need legal support to back the industry.”
BY KIM MIN-KWAN [email@example.com]