While the popularity of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), or drones, is soaring, new regulations may see the devices grounded for good as a recent draft proposal that simply mimics general aviation rules is totally unfeasible, experts and drone sellers say.
The Civil Aviation Administration of China (CAAC)'s most recent move on drone regulation has been widely criticized, with some saying that it has "not taken the features of drones and the drone industry into consideration."
Regulations cobbled together from 20-year-old rules will not benefit the industry, said Ke Yubao, acting secretary-general of the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association, an industry group affiliated with the CAAC. The draft regulations, which follow media reports urging regulation of the field to ensure national security and public safety, were released in December 2015 and were supposed to be enacted on February 1. But they are still being modified, said a CAAC insider.
The new rules, titled "Temporary Management Plan For Using UAVs For Aviation Business" stipulate that companies that use UAVs must obtain a general aviation business license.
"The reality is, many drones are owned by individuals instead of companies, and it's not practical for those individuals to obtain business licenses," said Yu Jingbing, president of a Shenzhen-based drone firm.
Other drone sellers also said that if these regulations only apply to companies and instead of individuals, many of the most severe safety and security issues will not be addressed.
According to a 21st Century Herald report, if the regulations as currently written do apply to individuals they will likely drive the vast majority away from the hobby.
"It's hard to understand why a farmer needs to register and gain permission to use a drone to spray pesticides," Yu told the magazine.
The new regulations also require drones that are purchased or rented by companies to have an airworthiness certificate. This would require companies to prove the safety of their UAVs as well as their pilots' qualifications, to the CAAC.
However, airworthiness certificates are not currently being granted to drones. UAVs can only receive a "special flight permit." These certificates last for less than a year, compared to up to five years for the normal certificates, and are more restrictive in terms of where drones can fly and for what they can be used.
Though the specific regulation of UAVs is necessary, such regulations need to be practical and tailored to the features of drones, said Gao Yuanyang, director of the General Aviation Industry Research Center at Beihang University. If general aviation regulations take effect, they would destroy the drone industry, Gao noted.
Rules compiled without an in-depth study of the drone sector will likely be unfeasible and consequently not help regulate the industry, said Zhang Qihuai, a civil aviation expert and law professor from China University of Political Science and Law.
A public letter signed by more than 180 individuals and companies was sent to CAAC after the release of the regulations last year, calling for their suspension, saying that general aviation rules should not be applied to drones.
Most of the signatories are from small- and medium-sized companies, who would be unable to cover the costs of the administrative burden caused by the new regulations.
The CAAC was quite surprised by the industry response to the regulations, said the CAAC official, adding that according to the current Civil Aviation Law a company needs to obtain a license before it conducts any kind of aviation business, including certificates for the vehicles and their pilots. Regulations that will allow drones to get airworthiness certificates are now being drafted, said the official.
Yu and another five representatives of drone companies were invited to speak to the CAAC on January 6, two days before the opinion soliciting process for the rules was due to end. However, the meeting was postponed due to the "busy schedule" of CAAC officials. No such meeting has taken place as of press time.
The regulations are still being modified and "it's merely a clerical error that the regulations will take effect on February 1," according to another official with the CAAC who requested anonymity.
There are over 100,000 drones in China, and the number is expected to multiply each year, Zhejiang-based Morning Express reported in December 2015. At a forum on the sidelines of an expo in Beijing in September 2015, several Chinese and foreign experts called for the implementation of specific regulations on the drone industry as soon as possible to avoid problems caused by totally unregulated flights, including terror attacks.