Flying a Camera Drone in Asia: Risks and Regulations
The recent news about two Australian travellers being incarcerated in Iran for allegedly flying a drone near Tehran without a permit, highlights the risks involved in using drones to countries where you may not be familiar with the regulations.
The two travellers, Mark Firkin and Jolie King from Perth, were journeying through Asia in a four-wheel drive, and video-blogging about their travels. Their last video – which featured a lot of spectacular drone footage – was published on their YouTube channel in June after they had finished driving the scenic Karakoram Highway in Pakistan.
News reports suggest that the bloggers could be facing 10 years in prison, although the official penalty for flying a drone in Iran without a permit is 6 months imprisonment followed by deportation.
Back in May, police warned a foreign tourist after flying a camera drone over the Shibuya scramble crossing in the middle of Tokyo, which is a no-fly zone. He was quoted as saying he was unaware of the law. In many other countries he would likely have been fined, or at worst imprisoned.
And in March a Vietnamese tourist was arrested in Cambodia’s capital, Phnom Penh, for flying a camera drone near the Municipal Hall, despite there being prominent signs around the city indicating that the area is a no-drone zone. The man claimed to have not seen the signs.
Travellers need to be aware that Asia is made up of many countries where citizens do not enjoy the same personal freedoms as in the west. There are communist states, military governments and many authoritarian regimes in Asia where breaches of the law will result in much heavier penalties than they would in the West.
Even in those countries that are constitutional monarchies or republics, citizens and visitors do not enjoy the same level of human rights as in most western countries. And most do not have security forces that are as obliging as the Japanese police.
It is therefore essential to make yourself aware of the rules and regulations that apply to flying camera drones in any country that you are intending to visit.
Nearly all countries in Asia have no-fly zones around military installations, power stations, government buildings and other sensitive areas. The biggest problem for visitors to the country is that they may not know where those sensitive areas are until police or soldiers suddenly arrive on the scene.
In those circumstances travellers may find themselves being charged with espionage – particularly if political relations between the country being visited and your country of citizenship are not good. Long prison sentences are the norm in many Asian countries if convicted of espionage.
China publishes maps of their no-fly zones, but few other countries do that, leaving travellers to rely on local knowledge, which may not always be accurate or up-to-date.
Drone photography used to be the domain of the tech-savvy younger set, but as advancements in technology have made the piloting of drones much easier, more and more older travellers are taking up drone photography as a new hobby.
Drones provide an opportunity to create more professional looking videos with panoramic and aerial perspectives that can’t be achieved by any other means (apart from hiring a helicopter!).
Aside from the impressive landscape videos and still images that can be shot from the air, drones can be flown into places that are inaccessible by foot (for example gorges and caves on mountain sides) and capture footage from angles that are impossible any other way.
And the quieter motors on today’s lightweight consumer drones means they can be used to shoot HD video or images of wildlife from much closer distances than could otherwise be achieved.
But it’s not possible to travel around Asia with a camera drone in your backpack as you might do with an SLR camera. There many regulations regarding the use of drones for photography – and they differ from one country to another – so a lot of planning is required in advance to know where you can and cannot use a drone.
Six countries – Bahrain, Bhutan, Brunei, Iraq, North Korea and Oman – have banned recreational use of drones completely (using a drone for taking video or still photos for non-commercial use is classified as recreational use), so any attempt to bring in a drone to those countries will likely result in it being confiscated at the arrival airport. And you may not get it back upon departure.
Kuwait, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and the UAE do not permit foreigners to fly drones. Only locals can apply for drone registration permits. Any tourists attempting to bring a drone into those countries will have it confiscated at the airport (with the exception of travellers transiting through Doha, Istanbul or Dubai airports, provided they do not leave the airport).
Azerbaijan and Uzbekistan ban the importation of drones for by tourists, even though there is no specific prohibition on foreigners flying drones in the country (however permits are required for recreational use). Your only option in those countries is to hire a drone whilst you are there, and that can be expensive.
For the rest of Asia, about two-thirds of countries most likely to be visited by tourists allow drone photography with a permit, whilst the rest allow drones to be used recreationally without a permit (but subject to some general guidelines which we will discuss later).
The ease with which permits can be obtained varies from country to country. In Myanmar and Vietnam the criteria and requirements for obtaining a permit are so difficult that it’s generally regarded as almost impossible for foreigners to obtain a permit.
That’s a real pity because there are some great spots in both of those countries for drone photography. An option would be to hire a local photographer with a drone permit to shoot for you at your direction. Perhaps you might be able to take the flight controls as well, although that could be risky unless you are in an isolated area.
India is difficult too, because foreigners are not permitted to fly drones in India. But some travellers on extended stays have got around that restriction by leasing their drone to an Indian national, and have that person apply for the necessary permits. After that, an identification number will be issued and an identification plate has to be attached to the drone.
Applying for permits in India is a long and difficult bureaucratic process, so unless you are spending many months in the country, it is unlikely to be worth the effort. For those who may pursue this course of action, the hassles don’t end there.
India has a drone management policy called ‘No Permission, No Takeoff’ – or NPNT for short. Every individual flight has to be approved by making application through a mobile NPNT app on India’s Digital Sky platform. And flights are not permitted in any national parks or within 50 km of any international border.
There is also a substantial risk in India of your drone being confiscated at the airport, so you will need to have the person to whom you are ‘leasing’ the drone arrange documentation for you to verify that you are bringing it in on their behalf.
Countries requiring permits
The following countries allow tourists to use camera drones provided they obtain permits in advance:
China (except for mini drones under 250 grams)
Japan (except for mini drones under 200 grams)
Russia (except for mini drones under 250 grams)
Although that’s quite a long list that includes many countries that are popular with photographers, you’ll need to do a lot of advance planning to obtain the required permits.
Aside from Taiwan, where you can make application for a permit at the airport on arrival (provided you have a certificate of registration and operation for your drone from your home country, and a Chinese translation of that certificate), you will need to make application for permits at least 10 days to one month prior to your arrival.
In some countries two or three permits are required from different government departments. You will need to carefully research the specific requirements of each country that you will be visiting when planning your trip.
You can do that through various websites that list drone laws for each country. Two of the best that we have found for doing that are UAV Systems International and UAV Coach. Even so, because drone laws are constantly being updated, some of the information in those listings is contradictory. Therefore you should try to find links to the websites of the licensing authorities in the country that you are visiting to determine the most up-to-date information.
Travellers to the ‘Stans’ (Kazakhstan, Pakistan, Tajikistan and Turkmenistan) and Iran should be especially cautious as there have been many reports of drones being confiscated at the borders of those countries, even though their owners had applied for permits in advance.
And even with permits, travellers should make themselves aware of the location of the no-fly zones in those countries, in addition to those previously mentioned.
In Cambodia, there are no-fly zones in many parts of Phnom Penh and at Angkor Wat near Siem Reap. Theoretically it is possible to apply for special permits to fly a drone in those places, but you would need to make applications to 3-4 different government departments and spend close to US$1,000 in fees. For most travellers flying drones as a hobby, that’s not a practical option.
In China, the whole of the capital Beijing is a no-fly zone, and in Iran the same applies to Tehran. In the Maldives there are no-fly zones around many of the resort islands. That’s specifically to preserve the ambience of the resorts (especially the upmarket ones) where guests pay a lot of money for tranquility and privacy.
In Sri Lanka (as well as India) there are no-fly zones in most national parks, wildlife reserves, and around temples and many archaeological sites, so this severely restricts the use of drones in places where you might particularly want to use them.
And of course in all countries there is a blanket ban on flying drones near airports. You’ll need to check the regulations for each country to determine the distance you have to stay away from airports and approach flight paths. It’s usually either five or ten kilometres (or an equivalent specification in nautical miles).
Countries not requiring permits
The following 10 countries are the only ones in Asia that permit tourists to undertake recreational flying of camera drones without a permit:
Indonesia (unless drones are over 2 kg)
However, there are still many rules and regulations that apply to flying drones in those countries, so this information needs to be researched before arrival, in addition to the location of no-fly zones (most of South Korea’s capital, Seoul, is a no-fly zone).
And whether you are flying with or without a permit, you’ll need to know the height restrictions for each country (usually between 50 and 150 metres – but in Macau it’s as low as 30 metres) above which you will not be able to fly your drone without special permits.
Each country has its own regulations as to how far from buildings you are permitted to fly (many have a blanket ban on flying over heavily populated areas), and how far you must keep your drone from roads, transmission lines and people who are not involved in the drone flying.
And always seek permission from the local landowner (if known) to fly your drone, whether or not you have a permit. If you are on private property, the landowner may ask for a small fee. It’s your call as to whether you make payment. If the amount being requested is unreasonable, then your best option would be to pack up and move to another location.
In countries where permits are not required, but where corruption is endemic, if you are flying a drone from public land you may be approached by police, security guards or local government officials demanding payment for flying your drone. It’s a common occurrence in places frequented by a large number of tourists.
If the payment requested is only a nominal amount, it’s best to pay up, even though you may be sure they have no right to demand such a payment. Otherwise just state that you didn’t know that a fee was payable and move on. Never argue with local officials in those circumstances, because those sorts of encounters can turn nasty.
A beautiful drone video shot in the Philippines. Videographer: © The World Travel Guy
Whilst capturing video or still photographs from a camera drone can be an immensely rewarding way to record, share and remember your trips to Asia, don’t underestimate the amount of planning, research and costs involved in making applications for permits.
Unless you intend to restrict your travels to the 10 countries that permit drone flying without a permit, you may want to stick to your trusty digital camera or smartphone video to record your travels.
Header image: Mohamed Hassan
Disclaimer: This article has been prepared based on our personal knowledge of drone laws and extensive online research. It is accurate to the best of our knowledge as at the date of publication. However drone laws are often amended, and in some countries still being drafted. Readers should therefore undertake their own research to obtain the latest updates for the countries that they intend visiting.