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[Weekender] Regulations, privacy pose dilemma

The existing legal landscape for drones remains relatively restrictive in comparison to other developed countries, posing serious challenges for the growth of the fledgling industry.

With the latest revolutionary technology taking off, a growing number of entrepreneurs are paving the way in Korea for a wider use of unmanned aerial vehicles, commonly known as drones.

Even President Park Geun-hye last month stressed the need for an industry-specific development strategy at a national level concerning unmanned vehicles, including drones.

However, industry insiders agree that the existing legal landscape for drones remains relatively restrictive in comparison to other developed countries, posing serious challenges for the growth of the fledgling industry.

Current drone laws and regulations fall under aviation laws, which were set long before the commercialization of drones here, said Rep. Bae Duk-kwang of the ruling Saenuri Party, indicating the limits of their applicability today.

The lawmaker on Tuesday organized a special debate on drones, titled “Drones are the Future.”

Panel members share their opinions on drones during a forum organized by Rep. Bae Duk-kwang (fourth from right) at the National Assembly on Tuesday. (Ahn Sung-mi/The Korea Herald)
Panel members share their opinions on drones during a forum organized by Rep. Bae Duk-kwang (fourth from right) at the National Assembly on Tuesday. (Ahn Sung-mi/The Korea Herald)

Under the current rule, any kind of drone ― commercial or non-commercial ― that exceeds 12 kilograms has to be registered with the local aviation authority. Drones below 12 kg can be used freely without a permit, though only in designated airspace.

The law also bans drones from flying after sunset, within 9.3 kilometers of an airfield, in any no-fly zone ― which includes most of Seoul and near the demilitarized zone ― and in other crowded places such as sports stadiums or during festivals.

Also, no flights are allowed to go higher than 150 meters from the ground.

Violators may face stiff fines of up to 2 million won ($1,800). Those who use drones for commercial use without registration could see fines up to 30 million won or imprisonment of up to one year.

“The current rule limits a wide range of drone use,” said Lee Jong-hun, vice president of Korea Aero Model Association. “The weight constraints should be set to 25 kilograms, adhering to global standards, such as the Federal Aviation Administration in the U.S. and the International Civil Aviation Organization, a specialized agency of the United Nations.”

Many drones built for leisure purposes easily exceed 12 kilograms, which is resulting in an increasing number of unreported drones, he said. “The reality is that people break the law when flying drones here,” Lee said. “Also, international drone competitions cannot be held in Korea due to the weight restrictions.” 

Lee Jong-hee, a representative from the state-run Korea Institute of Aviation Safety Technology, emphasized easing regulations while guaranteeing safety.

“The state is implementing regulations to ensure safety for all registered drones. But it is also important to run safety checks on the small drones below 12 kilograms, to guard against security risks and privacy issues in the future.”

As drone use in everyday life is expected to increase, so too will concerns about privacy. Under the present system, there are no specific privacy regulations on drone use.

“In the case of a privacy breach, civil law and the Personal Information Protection Act cover the dispute,” said Kim Seung-joo, president of the Korea Unmanned Vehicle Systems Association. “New bills need to be introduced to tackle drone-specific privacy violations.”

By Ahn Sung-mi (sahn@heraldcorp.com)
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