Drone regulations rigid, stumbling block for creative industries

Since 2018 till date, civil aviation has fined 20 private individuals for flying drone illegally

Tshering Denkar, the first Bhutanese solo travel blogger and a vlogger, was recently imposed a penalty of Nu 20,000 by the Bhutan Civil Aviation Authority (BCAA) for flying a drone. Along with her, a few other independent film makers were also imposed fine.

The BCAA has from 2018 till date imposed penalties on 20 private individuals for flying the drone illegally.

“The government cannot view technology only as a challenge, an obstacle, or a problem. It should be seen as an enabler that will facilitate creativity, employment and growth. While it is necessary to have regulations on drones (unmanned aircrafts) to prevent mishaps and security breaches in sensitive locations, excessive regulation has affected the creative industries and filmmakers,” said an independent film maker on grounds of anonymity. He added the regulation has been developed
in a way that it makes it impossible for private film production houses and individual filmmakers in Bhutan to acquire a drone permit. “While the approval process is extremely cumbersome, with the involvement of multiple government agencies.”

The regulation requires individuals to submit a drone pilot certificate, which is expensive to get. There are no institutes in Bhutan that provide drone pilot training. BCCA does not facilitate such trainings, at least it has not conducted as any such trainings so far.

In Bhutan, all drones must be approved before operation at the BCAA at Paro International Airport. However, the approval is granted only to government organizations.

What is a drone?

Drone is an aircraft without a human pilot on board the aircraft. It is also known by several other names such as Unmanned Aircraft System (UAS), Remotely Piloted Aircraft System (RPAS).

What does the authority say?

In an email response to Business Bhutan, BCAA said as per the UAS Regulation 2017, the drone operation is allowed only for government agencies for government purposes. As per existing regulation, private individual/companies are not allowed to operate drones within the airspace of Bhutan.

As per the regulation, the drone operator should submit the license or documentary evidence indicating that the operator has adequate experience or demonstrate the ability to identify and manage hazards and threats; operate the UAS within its limitations or those limitations imposed by the regulations; complete all maneuvers with smoothness and accuracy; exercise good judgment and airmanship; apply aeronautical knowledge; and maintain control of the UAS at all times in a manner such that the successful outcome of a procedure or maneuver is assured.

For the approval to fly a drone, a certification is needed which would be expensive but BCAA said that as of now, the authority has no such plans to provide training and certification for the drone operators due to lack of qualified trainers within the authority.

Involving multiple agencies, Royal Bhutan Police, Department of Culture and BCAA for the approval seem to be a big hassle for the people. To which a BCAA official said: “Drone is a most modern technology which has both positive and negative impact on the society. Existing regulation has been framed after consultation with the relevant stakeholders. Clearances from the relevant government agencies are required as per their area of operation. However, BCAA has plans to amend the existing regulation.”

Notification from the BCAA states that as per sections 144-146 of the Civil Aviation Act of Bhutan 2016, flying of unauthorized drone/UAS in the country is strictly prohibited.

In the event, any unauthorized drones are seized, it shall be dealt as per the Civil Aviation Act of Bhutan 2016.

It is mandatory to register all the drones that are imported into Bhutan. As per circular any types of UAS are allowed. But they can fly only in the operation conditions: VLOS ops (Visual Line of Sight operations); Not permitted to fly exceeding a height of 300ft (90m) above ground or water level; Out of restricted and danger area, air routes and 3 miles out of airports.

In addition, BCAA allows drones of weight 6kg (including battery & camera) and below in current practice.

The applicant or the drone operator has to sign an undertaking with BCAA when obtaining a flying approval from BCAA.

Views from film makers

Business Bhutan spoke to some film makers and many shared that the regulations needed to be looked into and while some felt that the regulations on drone operation is very rigid in Bhutan. Such regulations, safety issues aside, impact the creative industries, particularly filmmakers and their creative output.

Pema Choden Tenzin is the founder of Yeewong magazine, Bhutan’s only women and lifestyle magazine and she creates travel videos and social media content about travel in Bhutan for the tourism council and travel agencies. She said she does not support the ban on the recreational operation of drones but the regulation on private media offices, I feel, needs to looked into. I work on a lot of travel videos and drone shots help showcase destinations better, you will see that in almost all international travel videos on Youtube.”

She added that they get a lot of feedback from outsiders on some of the videos with beautiful drone footage, so it is disheartening when you get slapped with penalties for doing your part to promote your country’s tourism.

A local independent film maker, Kinley Tshering said: “We live in an age of new technologies that have made lives better. Bhutan must also adopt these new techs for various purposes, including business and socio-economic development. However, rigid regulations such as this not only discourage the adoption of technologies for creative works but also hamper business and economic opportunities.”

“A simple procedure should be put in place to get approvals to operate drones in non-sensitive locations,” he added.

Vlogger Tshering Denkar said the regulation puts limitations and restricts the creativity of the film makers which discourages them. “We can portray Bhutan in a different level since the shots captured through drone are completely different, taking creativity to a different level. Such regulations do not allow us to grow technically and technologically,” she said.

She also believes that the authority needs to revisit the regulations and create more advocacy on drone usage in Bhutan. “The rules are confusing and if they are streamlined, we don’t mind abiding by them,” she added.

Another film maker, Rabgay, a 24-year-old was also fined by the authority. He said the usage of drone in their line of job is very crucial and additional plus point to their work. “Creative shots can be shot through drone and with modernization we should be allowed to use drone. Such regulations only restrict our creativity. If the authority concerned could look into the possibility of considering the private individuals and companies to use the drone,” he said.

He also shared that such regulations make him feel that they are not advancing but regressing by almost a decade. “New technologies are emerging but we are not being allowed to use them. I feel stagnant and at this rate, we will not see developments unless such regulations are changed for the better.”

Chencho Dema from Thimphu