‘It’s just such a horrible feeling having this thing spying on you’

Laws governing drones hard to enforce, civil aviation warns

Julia Gregoriou was sitting in her courtyard in old Nicosia last Sunday when she heard a buzzing noise above. Looking up, she saw a drone hovering directly overhead.

“It came over, really quite low down, and hovered there for at least a minute. I was so angry I sat there giving it the middle finger. It finally moved away. A few seconds later it came back, but this time not directly overhead,” she told the Sunday Mail.

Gregoriou lives just a couple of metres away from the green line and guessed immediately that whoever sent up the drone wanted footage of that section of the buffer zone that winds through the old city.

“The reason for the drone was clearly not about invading my privacy but to take pictures of the green line, but in the process they were also filming me. It’s just such a horrible feeling having this thing spying on you. And you feel helpless as you have no idea who it is watching you.”

Gregoriou’s experience raises two issues that have become increasingly pressing with the proliferation of drones. The first concerns personal privacy and second the flying of unmanned aircraft in restricted areas such as the buffer zone.

“There are a number of people who don’t respect the law,” chief officer of the aviation department Nicos Nicolaou commented. “They are extremely difficult to control.”

In a case like the one described by Gregoriou, even if police are notified immediately, they will probably not be on time to catch the offender, who is able to move an unmanned aircraft out of sight quickly.

There are no-fly zones for drones in Cyprus, close to military zones and airports, but they are difficult to monitor. The allowed safety distance from airports is eight kilometres. No flying above, within, or in proximity to military installations, public utility installations, archaeological sites and public or private facilities is allowed.

Basic rules do not allow drones to fly close to residential areas and people. In fact there is a defined safety distance of one kilometre from residential areas.

The safety distance from isolated buildings, people, vehicles, animals, structures, except with the owner’s/person’s consent is 500 metres.

It is impossible to identify the owner from a drone flying around in the air, and the problem is not restricted to Cyprus, Nicolaou said. He mentioned the incident in the UK, which left Gatwick airport closed for 33 hours in the week before Christmas 2018, causing 1,000 flights to be cancelled and wrecking the plans of 150,000 travellers, due to a single unauthorised drone.

One way of trying to keep up with the culprits is to keep changing the law to keep up with changing technology, the aviation department said.

In July this year the EU issued new regulations, which will be adopted in Cyprus by July 2020, the aviation official explained. They are not very different from the ones Cyprus already has, just more descriptive. “There are no major differences, ours are simpler and easier,” Nicolaou said.

Indeed, the official document specifying the 2019 EU regulations has 52 pages.

According to the aviation department’s website, “the purpose of this reform is to create a truly harmonised drone market in Europe with the highest level of safety.”

Once a drone pilot has received an authorisation from its state of registry, he/she will be allowed to freely circulate in the European Union.

The regulations define precisely what drone owners are allowed to do, but the question of monitoring and enforcing the law remains.

Nicolaou said enforcement also depends on the cooperation of manufacturers as well who should ensure the traceability of unmanned aircraft.

“The big ones comply but a young kid can build a drone nowadays, and anyone can order parts from the Internet and assemble one,” he said.

The problem is expected to get worse in the future with advancing technology the aviation department believes, which is why they request cooperation from everybody who has any information of unlawful activities.

None of which particularly reassured Gregoriou.

“I think it’s time to invest in a high-powered catapult,” she said.

More information is available on the department’s dedicated website https://www.drones.gov.cy/. The registration form for drone owners and a drone incident report are also available on the website in both English and Greek.