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As drones become ubiquitous in The Netherlands, the Dutch Government is attempting to bring the legislation up to par with current realities of consumer drone market. Why do we need an all-inclusive and safe legal framework for drones? Wiebe de Jager from Dronewatch.nl helps NRG Magazine to make sense of the situation.
In 2014 the European Commission has adopted a strategy to support the progressive development of civil drones market in Europe. “A new era for aviation” recognized that RPAS (Remotely Piloted Aircraft Systems, commonly known as drones) in Europe have matured so rapidly in past years, that this technology is now ready to make a shift from being a military equipment to a technology for civil use. According to the Commission, allowing RPAS in civil airspace is crucial because they “can offer a myriad of new services”. Some of the most common examples of such can be photography, transport of goods (and even people, in the long term), monitoring facilities, and many others. However, the European Commission also acknowledged that the growth of the European drone market has stalled. The reason for this is the absence of an adequate regulatory framework in the majority of EU Member States, and the need to get individual authorizations from the national Governments. That’s why some European countries started to develop national rules to facilitate the use of drone in local industries.
The Netherlands is no exception. At this moment, drone-owners in the country fall into two categories: private and commercial users. Their drones might be the same, but the rules imposed on them are not. Commercial use in this case means using a drone for profit or in connection with your business operations, and requires a flying permit from the Dutch Human Environment and Transport Inspectorate. Commercial users constitute a very broad group of drone owners, among whom journalists, agricultural companies, businesses who want to fly drones for inspecting their own facilities, film production companies, and many others. Wiebe de Jager, founder of Dronewatch.nl, the first Dutch blog about consumer drones, confirms: “Professional drone flying is extremely difficult now. You need to have a company permit for each flight and you need to apply for it in advance.” Thus, meaningful activities involving drones require a permit. Arguably, this rule curbs the potential advantages that drones might bring to the Dutch industry, e.g. precision farming, safety inspections of infrastructure like dams, dykes or power grids, disaster relief, etc.
However, this might change. The Dutch Ministry of Infrastructure and the Environment has proposed the simplification of rules concerning the commercial use of drones in The Netherlands. Earlier this year the Ministry stated that, starting from October 1, 2015, owners of the so-called “mini-drones” would not have to obtain a flying permit any more. This means that the regulations currently in force for those using drones for business would become naught for drones weighing less than 4 kg. If your drone is light enough, you may use it for any purpose and without a license, given that you also comply with the overall safety rules. Wilma Mansveld, State Secretary for the Ministry of Infrastructure and the Environment commented: “commercial use of drones has significantly grown in the past year, and is growing still. With the new rules I would like to provide this innovative sector with more transparency and room for growth…” (transl. NRG Magazine).
Why is it necessary to establish mini-drones as a separate category? According to de Jager, the major pitfall of the existing regulation is that at the moment it was drawn up, the drone industry was significantly less developed than it is now. Profound changes in the RPAS market have been summarized in “A new era for aviation”, the EU strategy mentioned earlier: “RPAS include many different types of aircraft, ranging in terms of maximum take-off weight from grams to more than ten tons, in terms of maximum speed from hovering to more than 1,000 km/h, in terms of flight endurance from a few minutes to months…” Furthermore, according to the European Commission, “there are 1,708 different RPAS referenced worldwide of which 566 in Europe, being developed or produced by 471 manufacturers worldwide of which 176 in Europe.”
You can thank the technology for the rapidly growing and diversifying consumer drone market, a trend that makes this domain hard to regulate because many different drone types continually are presented to the consumer. “Current law is still focused on the Unmanned Aerial Vehicles which can weight up to 150 kg, while regular consumers mostly use light-weight drones which pose a relatively little threat to public or traffic,” explains de Jager, “Light-weight drones were not taken into account before because they weren’t so affordable and widespread.”
De Jager is largely supportive of the coming changes: “Personally, I support the decision to let mini-drones fly without a permit. When the technology is evolving so quickly, governments should display some flexibility and adapt the regulations accordingly. In the USA, the Federal Aviation Authorities are also loosening up on its drone regulations. It’s a good thing that the Dutch law is changing too.” An avid drone flyer himself, he is also warning against the potential safety problems that the softened regulation might bring. “People need to be educated about drones and safe flying. If the Ministry is to allow the new category of mini-drones, there really should be some public awareness campaign that would educate people about safe drone operation.”
However, it is now unlikely that the new rules for the Dutch drone owners will indeed come into effect in October, given that the Governmental discussion about drones was recently rescheduled to take place on September 3, 2015, after the Dutch House of Representatives is back after the summer recess. De Jager comments: “I doubt that they will be able to come up with a new legislation by the first of October. There are too many stakeholders involved, and October is just a few months away.”
To sum it up, de Jager says: “The technology is developing so quickly. Although there are many good cases for using a drone, sometimes I want to step back and ask myself—is this something we really want, as a society? Drones will continue to develop, they will become smaller and smaller, and this starts to get scary. The discussion we are having right now is just a beginning, because we are only touching upon the legislation aspect. At some point this discussion will transform into a societal debate about the role of drones in our lives. Public annoyance with drones is yet to show itself, because people are very anxious about things they don’t understand.’’