How Drones Are Threatening Israel’s Already Unfriendly Skies

Thousands of hobbyists and companies are operating based on a law from 1981 when unmanned aircraft were only a distant dream. Well, no one really knows about the law

Gabriela Davidovich-Weisberg
Refaella Goichman
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An M2 delivery drone, manufactured by Matternet Inc., carries a Swiss Post International Holding AG branded box containing laboratory samples
An M2 delivery drone, manufactured by Matternet Inc., carries a Swiss Post International Holding AG branded box containing laboratory samplesCredit: Bloomberg
Gabriela Davidovich-Weisberg
Refaella Goichman

London’s Gatwick Airport was recently closed for more than 24 hours because a drone was flying nearby without a permit. Stories like this make the headlines every so often and cause an uproar, but they haven’t yet led to serious supervision of drone hobbyists.

And this comes as the number of drone geeks is steadily increasing, many of them young children and teenagers who receive the gadget as a birthday present.

In Israel about 20,000 drones are being used; not only by hobbyists but also for agriculture and photography. But despite the risks to public safety and privacy, Israel doesn’t even enforce its outdated 1981 regulations, legislated when drones were a distant dream.

“Along with the benefits ensuing from the use of drones, there is an increasing risk of adverse use in the realms of security, criminal activity and safety, to the point of harming lives and undermining state security,” wrote State Comptroller Joseph Shapira in a November 2017 report.

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Shapira agrees that there’s a gap between the current law and Israel’s ability to deal with the dangers. He mentions the safety threat to aircraft, and the danger that terror and criminal organizations will start using drones.

According to industry estimates, the major threats are a landing of goods in prison yards or the delivery of explosives by terror groups, but Shapira notes that the fine for improperly or illegally using a drone doesn’t deter anyone.

More than a year has passed since the November 2017 report, and amateur use of drones has only increased. The 1981 aviation legislation refers to radio-controlled model airplanes, which were a big hit in the ‘80s – and now the entire private drone industry is based on it.

According to the 1981 legislation, unmanned aircraft should not be flown higher than 50 meters (164 feet) off the ground. They also may not be flown “at a distance of less than 250 meters from a residential neighborhood, a public building such as a school, hospital or movie theater, or a place where people assemble.” But enforcement of these stipulations is almost nonexistent.

Thus in March the chairman of the Knesset Science and Technology Committee, MK Uri Maklev (United Torah Judaism), formed a subcommittee to tackle the issue, headed by MK Haim Jelin (Yesh Atid). But the committee met only twice – in March and July.

A drone manufactured by Crocs. Credit: Bloomberg

During the first discussion, a lawyer from the Civil Aviation Authority said an amendment to the law would be submitted within six months; the comptroller’s report would be addressed. But the committee hasn’t met in six months. During the discussion it was also noted that the police haven’t yet crafted a strategy to deal with drones.

In Israel, a private individual who buys a drone has almost no way of guessing that he’s supposed to follow the 1981 law. Even the possibility of finding the legislation is almost nonexistent.

Increasing awareness

Noam Milstein, drone operations chief at the Civil Aviation Authority, calls the gadgets “the electric bicycles of the sky.” For more than a year he has been working on a bill to share the skies with drones.

“A drone is a multiblade aircraft, a model airplane, an unmanned aircraft – the problem is that any definition is correct. The familiar Phantom 4 drone becomes an aircraft for commercial use when it’s flown by soldiers, when it’s flown by Amazon and when it’s used for agricultural purposes,” Milstein says.

“It falls under the Aviation Law and is irrelevant to the 1981 amendment, when there were no drones in the world. Unmanned aircraft were the hobby of a closed clique; you had to undergo training because otherwise the device would crash.”

Milstein says that despite the lack of clarity, when private individuals buy a drone they're required to receive a page containing rules for the gadget’s use, based on the 1981 legislation. But he admits that the Civil Aviation Authority doesn’t know if the instructions are attached to the box of every drone sold in Israel.

Still, he believes that awareness among hobbyists is increasing; they know that there are clear instructions. “We had a successful radio campaign, but that’s not enough and there has to be more awareness about the law,” he says.

“There’s a law on the subject and there hasn't been a legislative vacuum since the Civil Aviation Authority took the law and turned it into a leaflet of dos and don’ts. As long as people observe the rules, only the drone can be damaged.”

According to assessments in the drone industry, the market for the sale and repair of drones has an annual turnover in the hundreds of thousands of shekels. According to ZAP, an online price comparison website, the average price in 2017 was 4,443 shekels ($1,210), which increased 13% last year to 5,033 shekels.

A man flying a drone.Credit: Sean Thibert / SkySquirrel Techn

Of the drones sold in Israel, around 60% cost about 500 shekels, 20% cost 1,000 shekels and 30% cost between 3,000 and 10,000 shekels. ZAP also says demand for drones has climbed 20% in the past year; around Passover, the increase was 90%. Apparently many people bought drones as a holiday gift, perhaps for the children.

A senior executive in one of the chains selling drones says that when it comes to family use, there is little awareness beyond the alertness of some parents.

“We try to remind them that this is an innovative product that requires a great deal of personal responsibility, and there are parents who take that seriously and ask questions. They apparently also take responsibility later for what happens at home,” he says.

“But in quite a few instances we encounter parents who are only interested in satisfying their children, completing the purchase and leaving the store. We really have no way of knowing how and where the children will use the drone, and whether anyone will supervise them and ensure that they know how to use it.”

Endangering airliners

Milstein is aware of these problems and admits that there are plenty of  security and safety problems.

“Only this year there were 30 to 40 reports from pilots who reported that a drone was about 75 to 100 meters from them during takeoff or landing,” he says. “In such a situation there’s no way of knowing who’s operating it.”

Omri Bishor is the chief technology officer of AgriDrones, whose drone crop duster has a capacity of 15 liters (4 gallons) and a weight of 30 kilograms (66 pounds). He knows firsthand about the differences between amateur and commercial drone use.

To bring a commercial drone into Israel, an import license from the Civil Aviation Authority and the Communications Ministry is required, something that can be obtained only after a declaration of intentions and the providing of documents, he says.

“After receipt of the drone you have to provide paperwork that includes a safety guide and a maintenance guide .... After the aircraft is registered, you get a trial permit,” he says.

Omro Bishor, CEO of AgriDrones. Credit: AgriDrones

“Usually the permit is limited to certain areas and a certain period, and after receiving certain safety instructions. Such a trial day costs us 4,000 to 5,000 shekels, and we’ve conducted about 60 such days and used two drone operators and an aviation technician. Such a permit costs about 300,000 shekels.”

Milstein hopes to see a change in the regulations mainly for small commercial operators like wedding photographers, and for the general public. This way they’ll work according to the law, and everyday Israelis will be aware that more and more children are joining the hobby without knowing the dangers.

“As of now there's a regulatory burden that doesn’t suit the needs of the commercial market. The population has changed, as have the costs of the drones and their increasing use,” he says. “We estimate that there are about 20,000 drones in use for sports and leisure in Israel, 378 of which are commercial and have gone through a long registration process.”

Although the field is unsupervised, Israel is no exception. According to Milstein, the only country that has introduced comprehensive legislation is the United States – in 2016.

“The idea is to use drones for needs such as spraying, pizza deliveries and cleaning high-tension lines,” he says. “There is almost no industry that won’t use drones. As with cars, aviation will be pilotless, so that’s why we’re organizing it now.”

As part of the bill that the Civil Aviation Authority is promoting, amateurs will have to register on a special website and pass a knowledge test; the registration fee will be 30 shekels.

The computerized system for registering amateur drone operators will also include regular updates for operators, communication with representatives of the Civil Aviation Authority, and a link for reporting safety events.

According to Milstein, the assumption is that most amateur drone users don’t have criminal operations in mind, so he doesn’t expect any problem with voluntary registration. Still, the soundness of this assumption can’t be predicted if the hobby continues to grow and enforcement isn’t sufficiently implemented.

But in the commercial arena, Milstein says there are plans for further organization that will make it easier for companies that want to operate drones, not to mention those wedding photographers and the like. Instead of paying about 14,000 shekels for a license, they’ll only have to dish out a few thousand shekels.

In about two weeks the new bill will be released for public comments. It is estimated that within three to four months it will be ready for approval by the Knesset Economic Affairs Committee; from there it will go to the Justice Ministry and the full Knesset.

Now, with a general election set for April 9, we can assume that any progress on the subject and legislation will be delayed, at a time when tens of thousands of drones are dotting Israel’s skies. Everyone agrees that safety problems are only a matter of time.

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