Disclaimer: The following post neither constitutes legal interpretation nor legal advice. It simply sets out the facts and my personal interpretations. It's entirely up the reader and / or their legal team to draw their own conclusions and interpretations of this legislation!
A few weeks ago I wrote a piece about the legalities of flying a drone in Ireland. Hands down it has been one of my most popular posts to date this year having already been read several thousand times via my website's blog. However, a question that I've been asked several times since publishing that post relates to the rules surrounding use of drones weighing under 1kg, e.g., the DJI Mavic, Mavic Air and Spark.
S.I. 563 of 2015, aka IRISH AVIATION AUTHORITY SMALL UNMANNED AIRCRAFT (DRONES) AND ROCKETS ORDER, the legal instrument that legislates for drone use in Irish airspace, clearly states that this order does not apply to drones weighing in below 1kg:
Section 6, Subsection 2, Part (c): "This Order shall not apply to drones and small unmanned aircraft of less than 1 kilogram maximum mass less fuel and constructed of wood, paper or frangible plastic and containing no substantial parts, when operated below 15m above the ground or water and in a manner that does not create a hazard to persons, property or other aircraft."
So what does this mean if you've just bought a Mavic, Mavic Air or Spark? Simply put the only obvious restriction of the use of such devices is an automatically applicable flight ceiling of 15m or 50 foot above land or water - that's roughly a max height of three average sized double decker buses stacked on top of each other!
So if you've just bought a Spark, does this mean that you can fly it down the main street of your local town? Well, as I already stated in my disclaimer at the top of this post, I am not offering legal interpretation or advice on this here matter. However, it's worth paying special attention to the following specific element of S.I. 563: "when operated below 15m above the ground or water and in a manner that does not create a hazard to persons, property or other aircraft." when looking for an answer to this question.
Personally, the way I would approach this question would be to think of a comparative example. Would it be safe to operate a circular saw or angle grinder in the middle of a busy town centre with people milling all around? Arguably a drone is not too dissimilar a piece of technology, except that rather than having one electric motor driving one blade or disc, a drone will typically have four small electric motors which have been designed to spin four blades (or rotors) with sufficient force to facilitate the takeoff, landing and propulsion (during flight) of the device in question.
Is it a bit extreme to compare a drone like the Spark to operating an electric saw or angle grinder? Well, put it this way, would you want any drone, even one as apparently innocuous looking as a Spark, to fall out of the sky and hit you on the head or to hurtle laterally, and out of control, towards your face at it's max speed of 50km/h (sport mode, no wind)?
How would you feel if you were operating such a device and it hit a child? What damage do you think it would do to a child's face when travelling at this speed? With this in mind, perhaps it’s worth re-reading the above quote from S.I. 563 ahead of any planned flight activity. I’m by no means suggesting this as a rule you must follow but maybe it’ll help to reduce at least some risk when planning a sub 1kg drone flight!
Think I’m being eccentric here? Then it’d be well worth Googling “Run away spark”! To be very clear here, I’m not trying to be either an alarmist or a killjoy here, I’m merely trying to raise awareness of around the risks of what can happen when these devices are being operated. There’s also the obvious issue that Ireland can be quite relaxed about legislating for new activities until somebody has an accident — then we find that the relevant activities can become seriously restricted or even banned for everybody — and nobody wants this to happen, especially when it comes to flying drones!
What if you have already purchased a sub 1kg device (say a Mavic) but are now unclear about how far you can push that devices capabilities given what I’ve just set out? Well good news if you were hoping to operate at the limits set out under S.I. 563, because you can provided that you apply to register your device with the IAA. Better still, if you want to fly beyond the limations subscribed by S.I. 563, then this is possible too provided that you first undergo an Irish Aviation Authority (IAA) approved training course with an IAA recognised flight school.
Upon successful completion of drone ground school, as part of that process, you will have then have to pass a flight test. Passing that test will enable you to apply to the IAA for special permissions to fly beyond the limits of S.I. 563 on a case or rather flight by flight basis. More information about this process, as well as a list of improved flight schools, can be found on the IAA website.
For more useful information and guidance, professional as well as hobbyist drone operators may also find it useful to join the Unmanned Aircraft Association of Ireland (UAAI). It's currently free to join (you can also find the UAAI on Facebook) and is designed as a resource to support the interests of all drone users operating in Irish Airspace.
Thanks so much to all the people who have written to ask me this great question about the implications and legalities of flying a drone weighing under 1kg in Ireland! I'm also the PRO and Events Officer for 2017/18 so please feel welcome to contact me directly here if you have any further questions about the Irish drone industry. Even if I can't help you directly I'll most likely know the person who can!