Written by Eamon Holley, Legal Director, and Mohamed Moussallati, Legal Consultant, both based in Dubai, UAE

Drones (also known as unmanned aerial vehicles, or UAVs) of different shapes, sizes and specifications are definitely one of ‘the’ gadgets of the year and over the last few years have become increasingly available and affordable in the UAE. Their use for both personal and professional activity, ranging from filming special events such as weddings through to security protection details, is on the increase – but at what cost and at what impact to safety and privacy?

The UAE government has identified drones as a technology to assist with law enforcement and service delivery, and at the Government Summit (February 2014) launched the “Drones for Good” award to encourage the development of drone-related technology. There has been reported investment in the development of drones for delivery of small and time-sensitive items (such as medicines and identification documents), and Dubai Customs using drones for surveillance of suspicious activity and inspection of trade vessels in Dubai Creek.

However, reports at the end of January also surfaced of air traffic at Dubai Airport being brought to a standstill as a result of recreational drones flown by members of the public, and similar incidents were reported in the UAE in 2014. With this in mind, the General Civil Aviation Authority (GCAA) is widely reported to be in the process of drafting regulations relating to the use of drones in the UAE, with different categories and licencing requirements depending on the weight of the drone and the type of user (individual, corporate or governmental), and with restrictions on how and where drones can be used. It is also anticipated that authorities will issue regulations that control the import and distribution of drones into the local market, including mooted plans of the Dubai police to require all drones to be registered at the point of sale. More recently (11 March 2015), according to online news sources, the Abu Dhabi Business Centre, affiliated to the Department of Economic Development, announced a ban in Abu Dhabi on the sale of drones to the public until new laws to control drone use are issued.

But what regulations are already in place today that may apply to the use of drones and what are the key legal issues in the UAE that drone operators should be mindful of?

Threat to air navigation and passengers, and breach of aviation regulations

The potential for serious damage caused by even a small drone crashing into a flying commercial aircraft, and associated dangers to those on board, is well documented. The Civil Aviation Regulations, issued by the GCAA, prohibits “any man-made object” entering the area of airspace above 200 feet above the ground within 8km of an airport or 300 feet above the ground elsewhere in the UAE, unless approved by the appropriate Emirate Department of Civil Aviation. Contravention of these regulations may result in a fine and/or imprisonment.

Injury to the public and property damage

Drones can, of course, fall out of the sky and crash into people or property. This could be due to, for example, a flat battery, defects or poor navigation or control by the operator. Drone operators should therefore apply the appropriate level of care as any damage or injury caused could render them liable to pay the victim compensation (“to make good the harm”) under various sections of the Civil Code.

You can find a number of reports of incidents involving drones crashing into people and causing injury (see, for example, the video available online of a drone recording a bull run in Virginia, USA, crashing into and injuring spectators).

Government property

The filming and/or photography of government buildings, military installations and other designated sites is generally not allowed in the UAE. In fact, in October 2014, an American tourist attending a conference in the UAE was reportedly arrested and charged with “photographing within a restricted area”. The court ultimately found that his actions were committed “without ill intention”, although he was fined AED 500. Individuals who have been found guilty of similar offences have in the past reportedly received fines of up to AED 3,000 and prison sentences of up to three months.

Breach of privacy

In the UAE, an individual’s right to private and family life is considered paramount, with various protections enshrined across a number of UAE laws. Furthermore, local custom frowns upon the capturing of images of individuals (particularly woman and children) without consent, even in public places.

Under the UAE Copyright Law, for example, any person who takes a photograph of another, by any means, unless the individual agrees to it, is not permitted to “keep, show, publish or distribute” the images. There are certain exceptions, for example, where publication relates to public events or where permitted by authorities in favour of the public interest, but this is generally subject to the proviso that such photography should not prejudice the position or stature of any individual.

Under the UAE Penal Code, it is also an offence (unless permitted by law or by consent) to “prejudice the privacy of [an] individual or family life”, including by eavesdropping, recording or transmitting a conversation in a private place, or taking or transmitting “by any device of any kind whatsoever a photo of a person in a private place”. Similarly, “assaulting the privacy of a person” by “capturing pictures of [a] third party” is one of a number of offences under the UAE Cybercrime Law. The penalties for these offences generally include a fine and/or imprisonment and may also include the confiscation of the drone and any other associated equipment.

Operators should also check for specific regulations that may apply to drone use in individual Emirates, and also taking into consideration the activities involved. For example, in Dubai, there are licensing requirements (under Dubai Executive Council Resolution No. 50 of 2014 concerning the Dubai Film and TV Commission) associated with various filming activities for media production purposes (including, for example, advertising).

The economic benefits of drone technology have been embraced by the UAE government and businesses across the UAE, and the commercial and recreational use of drones is becoming more and more prevalent with increasing availability and affordability. However, the proliferation of these devices and recent incidents have placed emphasis on the need for a regulatory regime to control drone use, and indeed it is anticipated that dedicated regulations will be in place shortly. In the meantime, drone operators are well advised to make themselves aware of the existing legal regime (which is continually evolving and will no doubt include other regulatory bodies in time), and the legal implications of their actions.