As debate over drones in combat reaches a tipping point in the United States, the use of unmanned flying bots on domestic ground is also starting to pick up steam. As many as 28 states are considering legislation that would outlaw unmanned aerial vehicles, or UAVs. Another contentious issue in the U.S. is what makes a UAV “commercial” or “recreational.” Commercial use is generally recognized as having a profit endgame, but murky Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) laws only fuel the debate. Using UAVs for journalistic purposes seems to further blur the line between commercial and recreational use.
UAVs have also been making waves internationally, where laws (or guidelines) vary from nation to nation. The below is a guide we’ve put together that breaks down these various UAV laws. In most of the countries we’ve taken a look at, the designation between commercial and recreational UAV use is a key starting point in deciding rules and enforcement.
Canada (UAV-Friendly Rating: 2/5)
Perhaps the most complex UAV laws in the entire world exist just north of U.S. borders. Transport Canada is the agency that regulates Canadian air space, and it sets a clear line between “unmanned aerial vehicles” (commercial use) and “model aircraft” (recreational use). The definition of a model aircraft: less than 77.2 pounds, individually owned (no companies allowed) and not profit-seeking. If an aircraft meets these conditions, it is considered a recreational vehicle, making it subject to lower scrutiny. Aircraft that don’t meet this criteria are officially “unmanned aerial vehicles” and require Special Flight Operations certificates. Getting certified sounds like an almost more-trouble-than-it’s-worth process that includes a big list of specifications. For example: a UAV can meet the three model aircraft standards listed above, but if it’s also got a small camera, then the UAV automatically becomes an “unmanned aerial vehicle” under the law.
DIYdrones has more useful information on Canadian UAV law.
Mexico (UAV-Friendly Rating: 5/5)
No Civil Aviation Authority regulations beset UAV users in Mexico. In fact, Mexican attitudes evidently encourage UAV use. The Mexican government rewarded Jordi Muñoz, who is a young scientist and engineer, for exploring the peaceful uses of drones through his own production company, for example. The government also uses UAVs for everything from drug activity to university research.
United Kingdom (UAV-Friendly Rating: 3/5)
The U.K.’s UAV laws are similar to the current policies of the U.S. – meaning they’re really more like guidelines than a comprehensive set of regulations. Currently, CAP 722 claims jurisdiction over UAV use in the U.K. This legislation divides UAV use into two groups that both require permits. The key figure in the U.K. is 20 kg (or 44.09 pounds) – this is the weight limit a UAV cannot surpass to be considered a “small unmanned aircraft.” This title makes the aircraft more likely to only require a minor “Permit to Fly” classification, which is relatively easy to acquire, but does limit where and how high you can fly (rural lands are more acceptable).
Anything heavier or used for aerial photography requires a “Permit to Carry Out Aerial Work,” which comes with tougher restrictions. Attaining one of these permits requires a big list of prerequisites – from pilot qualification to design and construction certificates. According to The Guardian, there are only 130 groups or companies that have permission to fly UAVs in U.K. airspace.
Europe (UAV-Friendly Rating: 2/5)
Much of mainland Europe operates under the jurisdiction of the European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA), a European Union group. EASA is simple when it comes to UAVs: you’re going to need certification in any situation, whatsoever. Such certification is only granted on a case-by-case basis under the EASA’s rules, which we’d imagine is a lengthy process. The EASA also has shown that it does not operate under much precedent in these cases, despite UAV technology growing more and more everyday. EASA’s Policy Statement webpage on UAVs says that requests proposing flight in unpopulated areas have the best success rate.
Brazil (UAV-Friendly Rating: 5/5)
In South America, Brazil has become a leading player in UAV use. On the national level, the country is investing deeply in UAVs to patrol its borders. There are also no direct laws that infringe free civilian use. Such openness allows for amazing footage, like this video adventure in Rio de Janeiro:
Asia (UAV-Friendly Rating: an indifferent 1/5)
Both communist China and democratic Japan are using UAVs to square off with each other in a sort of micro-aggressive battle for disputed land. Similarly, South Korea also may be dipping its toes in militaristic UAV use through possible collaboration with the U.S. The only non-military use of UAVs that we’ve been able dig up in the region are limited to corners of agriculture, such as with rice fields of Japan.
Australia (UAV-Friendly Rating: 4/5)
Oceana is perhaps the most welcoming region for UAVs in the world. An “unmanned aircraft system” is Australian terminology for a UAV used for profit-seeking “air work,” but such commercial use only requires some easily attainable identification. Otherwise, the UAV is a “model aircraft, flown for sport & recreation and education,” according to the Civil Aviation Safety Authority. Model aircraft, from what we’ve seen, are completely hands-off in terms of regulation.
New Zealand (UAV-Friendly Rating: 5/5)
New Zealand law is like Australia, but without the identification requirement. It appears as if recreational and commercial motivations for UAV flight are indistinguishable in New Zealand, and free-flying policies lead to visual marvels like this video clip. The Aviation Industry Association of New Zealand has proposed legislation on UAVs, but the proposal is reportedly more of a non-restrictive manual for UAV use than anything.
UAV law ranges quite a bit internationally, which is exemplary of the many opinions on the new aircraft in the U.S.. As of now, the U.S. combines much of both strict but broad laws with fairly open areas of freedom in flight. While much of the direct U.S./FAA regulation zeroes in on commercial purposes for use, recreational or “hobbyist” use has generally been left alone as long as UAVs aren’t breaking trespassing laws. State legislation currently being considered, however, could catapult the U.S. up to among the most highly restricted countries for UAVs out there.
By Zach Garcia
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