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Drones in Central Asia: Permit or Forbid?

Central Asian states have laws and regulations that govern drone flights. However, each state has its own approach: from liberal to tougher regulation.


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Unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), which were previously used exclusively for military purposes, have become widely popular in less than 10 years among civilians throughout the world, including Central Asia.

In this regard, there is a fine line when a drone, initially used for peaceful purposes only, can take a picture of a military enterprise, disrupt the airspace of another state, and much more.

There are also cases of an intentional violation of the law on the drone usage. For instance, on September 14, 2019, Uzbek border guards on the Kazakh-Uzbek border intercepted a drone flying from Kazakhstan that carried 600 tablets of the psychotropic substance tramadol[1].

Several recent drone attacks on important facilities, such as the recent drone attack on an oil refinery in Saudi Arabia, raise two questions: How can the countries in the region be protected from such attacks? How well regulated are UAV flights in Central Asia?

The need for military cooperation

To answer the first question, you need to understand that the drone attack on the oil facilities of Saudi Arabia, for which the Hussites took responsibility, became a real test for the country’s air defense systems; a test that has been failed. The Central Asian countries, three of which are members of the Collective Security Treaty Organization (which has not yet created a unified regional air defense system), use Russian military equipment. The CIS regional air defense system, which besides Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan includes Uzbekistan, has also not yet reached a high integration level due to different views on the system functioning.

Undoubtedly, the fight against the Central Asian states’ airspace disruptions requires in-depth cooperation in the military sphere, namely, conducting joint exercises with the participation of all Central Asian states to prevent drone attacks, as well as developing their own drones. As an example, Kazakhstan already produces three models of its own UAVs, which are gradually being introduced to work at various enterprises[2], and in Uzbekistan, Russia plans to open a service center base for the military drones’ maintenance[3].

UAV Legislation in Central Asia

Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan have laws and Rules on the use of airspace that regulate UAV flights. However, each state has its own approach: from liberal to tougher regulation.

The Uzbek legislation defines the age limits (from the age of 18) and special training for UAV operators more clearly. Photo: Rustam Khusanov/ infoCOM.UZ.

For instance, in Kazakhstan, registration of drones is mandatory when the weight of UAVs with a maximum take-off mass exceeds one and a half kilograms. This is the largest weight that is not subject to registration among all the Central Asian states.

According to the new yet-to-be adapted Aviation Rules of the Kyrgyz Republic, it is obligatory to obtain a flight permit if the weight of the UAV exceeds one kilogram.[4] (Table 1).

In Uzbekistan, drones that weigh no more than 250 grams are considered toy, however, this type of drones should not be photo and video – equipped. Unmanned aerial vehicles, the weight of which exceeds toy drones, must undergo the mandatory registration procedure and obtain permission to use.

In Tajikistan, back in 2016, President Emomali Rahmon decided to register all UAVs in the country, as well as agree on a permit procedure with the national security authorities for all types of drones[5]. According to Tajik authorities, this requirement has been dictated by the need to protect the country from potential terrorists.

Of all countries, only Kyrgyzstan, according to the new Rules, plans to organize special training courses for UAV operators that will grant a certificate upon completion of the drone registration.

The aviation authorities in Uzbekistan also require special training, however, special courses have not yet been developed within the country. It is also worth noting that the country grants a permission to operate drones to legal entities only, so far barely 20 companies and government organizations have managed to obtain it[6]. The Uzbek legislation defines the age limits for UAV operators more clearly (from the age of 18), whereas Kyrgyzstan constrains children under the age of 8 to operate UAVs under the supervision of a person over 16 years old. The Kazakh law does not put any age restrictions on drone usage.

After the drone permission is obtained, the maximum flight altitude of the drones and the allowed and restricted areas for flying the drones might remain unclear. In Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan, you can fly the drone without notifying air navigation authorities if the flight altitude is no more than 50 meters. If the drone takes off above this altitude, you must register a flight plan, for now only Kazakhstan allows to register online[7]. All Central Asian countries regulate the proximity of flights to airfield markings and signs (at least 5.5 km). This is especially critical after several incidents demonstrated that the drone can cause a lot of inconvenience to civilians. An incident at British Gatwick airport, where 120 thousand passengers could not get on their flights on time due to UAVs found above the runways, is one example[8]. After such cases, it’s worth considering the airfields protection from unexpected drone flights since the latter can cause serious economic harm to airlines and airports.

The permissive system of flights over guarded facilities and objects of national importance in Central Asian countries, although requires the coordination of flights with the state security services, does not have clear regulations. None of the countries in the region defined prohibited airspace or no-fly zones in their Rules. For example, according to the new Rules draft, Kyrgyzstan forbids to fly at 1000 meters distance in prohibited airspaces and 500 meters in the areas of guarded facilities. However, according to professional drone users in Bishkek, explanations and boundaries for such facilities are blurred[9].

During 2019, Kazakhstan recorded several violations of the Flight Rules over guarded facilities, all of which committed by civilians.  Nur-Sultan city’s military police intercepted drones over the Ministry of Defense building twice[10], similiar cases were detected during the drone flight over military units in the cities of Karaganda[11] and Aktobe[12].

Drones interception: how the problem is solved?

The official press statements of the Republic of Kazakhstan’s Ministry of Defense usually report the facts of the offense only, without indicating the methods used for intercepting the drone. However, during another interception of an illegal flight over a military unit in the Arys town after a tragedy in July 2019, the military forcibly “landed” a drone flying over a military object by intercepting a signal[13]. To date, although there have been violation cases of the drone flights regulations in Central Asia, they weren’t widespread. In this regard, we might assume that the Central Asian states are still in search of the drone intercepting methods.

In addition to intercepting the signal, there are more radical methods to interrupt the unwanted flight of the drone. A meeting of the CIS Air Defense’s Coordination Committee, with a participation of all Central Asian states, marked the discussion of Russian military experience in intercepting drones in Syria. In 2019, 58 unmanned aerial vehicles were shot down in Syria[14]. Syria has become a kind of testing ground for Russian anti-aircraft weapons. From the success of the Russian operations in Syria to neutralize drones, we can conclude that Central Asia is more likely to use radical methods of destroying drones, especially if the latter is on the territory of the most important state facilities, such as deposits or, for instance, hydroelectric power stations.

What is the punishment for violators of the UAV regulation?

The severity of punishment for the illegal use of drones varies in Central Asian states. If in Kazakhstan a violator, namely an individual, will have to pay a fine of $ 66, in Uzbekistan the same violator can receive a prison term of up to 3 years for the illegal sale, storage and use of drones (Table 2). A person who voluntarily surrenders the drone will be exempted from criminal liability. Moreover, if the violation entails the death of people or disaster, then a citizen of Uzbekistan can go to jail for 8-10 years[15]. In Kyrgyzstan, a fine is also provided, but if the offender killed another person with a drone, then a real term of up to 5 years awaits him. In Kazakhstan, prison terms for killing people with drones are not provided, until now there were no such precedents. [In Tajikistan, a violator might be fined for refusing to register a drone with the Committee for State Security (however, the amount of the fine is not indicated in open sources) – editor’s note].

 

How much do the violations of UAV regulation in Central Asia cost?

An overly harsh punishment for UAVs can scare away potential tourists who, having taken beautiful shots and posted them on the Internet, can contribute to promoting the countries in the region as tourist destinations. However, there were also cases when foreign citizens took pictures of places and objects of state importance, which was regarded as acts of espionage.

In 2015, citizens of Japan and Austria were caught by border guards of the Kyrgyz Republic while shooting sections of the Kyrgyz-Tajik state border[16]. This fact emphasizes the importance of disseminating information on drone’s usage rules in Central Asian countries. For example, the Dutch government published the following material on its website[17]. The websites of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the regional countries could place rules for foreign citizens, since these webpages are the first to be visited before traveling to a foreign country.

The approach for addressing airspace safety and its potential violation must be comprehensively developed. It is no secret that corruption at Central Asian border control points is possible. Due to existing illegal smuggling of drugs and weapons across the borders in the region, transporting an unmanned aerial vehicle equipped with combat characteristics will not be difficult for potential violators. Therefore, introducing systemic reforms to eradicate corruption at borders is a key factor in ensuring the state security of Central Asian countries. Thus, the principle of zero tolerance for corruption, as well as the harmonization of the UAVs regulations of the Central Asian states will aid the security in the region.

International experience

It is worth noting that the world consensus on the UAVs regulation is yet to be reached since this area is still new for lawmakers. The European Union has used the most comprehensive approach in drafting the rules for drones.

Starting in 2020, uniform rules will be in force in all EU member states, which set technical requirements for drones and an intra-regional permitting system that allows obtaining one permit that is valid in all EU countries. Article 5 of the Rules states that drones should not cause harm and threaten the health of people and animals[18]. The laws of Central Asian countries indicate only humans as potential victims of a drone, neglecting the fact that animals can also fall a victim to UAVs.

Besides, the European UAV Rules target all potential players in the drone market: manufacturers, importers and the users themselves. Importantly, the drone’s distributors will have to provide full documentation on the drone’s technical characteristics that will confront the import of low-quality goods. China notably is the leader in the world production, and this EU decision was dictated by the will to protect its domestic UAV manufacturers market. As for users of drones, they have more stringent rules to follow: drones weighing up to 250 grams are not a subject to registration, whereas all other drones are. Also, the flight altitude cannot be higher than 120 meters, otherwise the drone will have to be landed immediately.

Recommendations

European experience demonstrates that harmonization of legislation on drones can become a promising platform for integration. Besides, widespread and simultaneous implementation of norms and rules will help Central Asia find a balance between ensuring security and the growth of this promising area. Countries in the region should learn from the introduction of common technical specifications for drones, as well as provide protection for manufacturers within the region. Below are some recommendations that will assist in this case.

The first: The above analysis takes us to conclusion that the legislation on the UAV flight regulation in Central Asia is “raw” and requires the inclusion and clarification of items on prohibited flights, technical characteristics, flight altitude and much more.

The second: The legislation should be fixed for potential importers and distributors of products. They should have a clear understanding of which type of drones meets technical equipment and requirements, and which should not be imported. Particular attention should be paid to the Chinese drone market due to the proximity of borders and frequent cases of importing low-quality products from this country to Central Asian states.

The third: As for fines and even imprisonment, each state in the region should bear in mind that the drone industry is one of the most promising in the world today and is at its very initial stage in the region, so a balance must be preserved between security and the development of the UAV industry. Do not demonize the industry because it has a wide range of applications: the most relevant for Central Asia is the use of drones in agriculture. The imposition of prison terms for the illegal use of drones clearly does not add the enthusiasm for agricultural producers to use new technologies, for instance, to identify locusts or new types of irrigation.

The fourth: A new look at the fight against corruption at the borders due to the illegal transportation of low-quality or potentially dangerous drones should push the Central Asian governments into carrying out the systemic reforms, otherwise the cost for mistakes and slowness in this case increases.

The fifth: A cooperation between business and the state within public-private partnerships in conducting the drone management courses would boost the training of skilled personnel who are aware of the framework and rules in UAV control. The population should also perceive drones not as toys, but devices that have flying rules, just as vehicles have traffic rules.


This article was prepared as part of the Giving Voice, Driving Change – from the Borderland to the Steppes Project. The opinions expressed in the article do not reflect the position of the editorial or donor.


Cover photo: Rustam Khasanov / infoCOM.UZ

[1] https://365info.kz/2019/09/uzbekskie-pogranichniki-perehvatili-kazahstanskij-bespilotnik-s-tramadolom

[2] https://kursiv.kz/news/kompanii-i-rynki/2018-07/kak-v-kazakhstane-sozdayut-i-realizuyut-bespilotnye-letatelnye

[3]  https://tj.sputniknews.ru/asia/20190708/1029352157/Uzbekistane-servisnyy-tsentr-remonta-voennykh-bespilotnikov-Russia.html

[4] http://caa.kg/wp-content/uploads/2016/09/%D0%9F%D1%80%D0%BE%D0%B5%D0%BA%D1%82-%D0%90%D0%9F%D0%9A%D0%A0-22-%D0%BD%D0%B0-%D1%81%D0%B0%D0%B9%D1%82-%D0%90%D0%93%D0%90-15-03-19.pdf

[5] http://avesta.tj/2016/08/31/mery-bezopasnosti-v-tadzhikistane-vse-bespilotniki-projdut-registratsiyu/

[6] http://www.uzcaa.uz/ru/bpla

[7] RSE “KazAeroNavigatsiya” http://www.ans.kz/en/

[8] https://www.bbc.com/russian/news-46643202

[9] https://ru.sputnik.kg/society/20190826/1045536543/drony-pravila-kr-proekt-zaprety.html

[10] UAV over the territory of the Republic of Kazakhstan’s Ministry of Defense has been neutralized https://24.kz/ru/news/social/item/332912-bespilotnik-obezvrezhen-nad-territoriej-ministerstva-oborony-rk

[11] https://tengrinews.kz/kazakhstan_news/vladeltsev-drona-zaderjali-v-karagandinskoy-oblasti-376160/

[12] https://www.zakon.kz/4973562-nezakonnuyu-semku-dronom-presekli-nad.html

[13] https://ru.sputniknews.kz/incidents/20190722/11014334/voennye-perekhvatili-dron-nad-arysyu.html

[14] https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/europe/russian-military-in-syria-says-it-downed-dozens-of-drones/2019/09/27/3497cb72-e124-11e9-be7f-4cc85017c36f_story.html

[15] https://www.gazeta.uz/ru/2019/05/03/drones/

[16] https://rus.ozodi.org/a/27658238.html

[17] https://www.government.nl/topics/drone

[18] https://eur-lex.europa.eu/legal-content/EN/TXT/?uri=CELEX:32019R0945

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