Foreign Drone Flying in Asia: Obstacles and Opportunities

Asia is one of the world’s fastest growing regions for drone development.  Yet, paradoxically, a large number of Asian countries still impose tight restrictions on drone flying, especially by foreigners.  In Japan, until just recently, all inspections of major public infrastructure had to be conducted on-site by human surveyors.  Drones were banned outright.  Some countries still prohibit drone flying of any kind in major urban areas (for example, in Seoul, South Korea).  And in countries with cherished monuments and religious temples, foreigners caught filming videos of them can be arrested and their cameras confiscated.  Even scenic vistas in rural areas far from population centers may be designated off-limits.

Foreigners are often unaware of the many drone regulations in place in Asian countries, including their ubiquitous “no-fly” zones.  Tourists blithely begin filming and sometimes run into trouble.  In Japan and Vietnam in 2019, groups of foreign drone operators were arrested in separate incidents that nearly led to jail time.  The penalties for violating drone laws are usually civil not criminal, but authorities have wide discretion to construe an innocent drone trespass as nefarious.  They may even accuse the perpetrators of spying, then demand compensation from them in exchange for their release.

Would-be drone operators should expect to secure a permit – and to pay a fee, perhaps hefty – to enjoy the right to fly their aircraft just about anywhere in Asia.  Consulting available web sites (such as UAS Systems and UAV Coach) to identify restrictions on drone flying – especially the “no-fly” zones which typically include national parks – would be wise.  However, these sites may not be up to date.  Knowledgeable local sources should also be consulted, especially those with recent flying experience.

Altitude restrictions may not conform to the generally accepted 400-foot rule; in a number of countries, it’s just 150 feet (and in one case, just 30).  Special weight restrictions may also apply.  As a rule, in Asian countries smaller and lighter drones are preferred, even for commercial operations.

Of the 48 countries that officially comprise Asia, five – Kuwait, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and the UAE – do not permit foreigners to fly drones. Only citizens of these nations can apply for drone registration permits.  Another six countries – Bahrain, Bhutan, Brunei, Iraq, North Korea and Oman – have banned recreational use of drones completely, even for locals.  The 10 most drone-friendly countries – for foreigners and locals alike –  include the Philippines, Malaysia, South Korea and China; the rest are tiny and not likely to attract much interest.  Recreational drone flyers don’t need a permit to fly in these 10 countries but commercial operators do.  In countries like India, the permitting process is so cumbersome that it functions as a de facto ban – or at least, a major discouragement.  Those with limited ambitions might simply give up rather than try to jump through an endless set of bureaucratic hoops, enduring hefty fees each step of the way.

While China as the world’s pre-eminent drone center is relatively open to foreign drone operations, including commercial ones, others, wary of the potential for foreign dominance, are anxious to build up their own drone industries.  In fact, this may be one reason for India’s foot-dragging on approving foreign drone permits – it’s a not-so-subtle message to stay out, unless local Indian partners are involved (which increasingly they are).

In the Philippines, a third-party technology transfer company, We Robotics, has been leveraging foreign drone investment to build up local capabilities.  In contrast to Africa, the first remote package delivery service in the Philippines is entirely locally owned.  We Robotics has served as a bridge between Pfizer Corporation, which wants to see medical supplies delivered to remote areas, especially the numerous inaccessible islands off the mainland, and Philippines Flying Labs. WeRobotics provided the start-up with comprehensive, in-person training on a DJI M300 industrial drone and engineered an upgrade to transform the vehicle into a full-fledged cargo drone.  Philippine Flying Labs has been making remote medical supply deliveries ever since.

Aerial mapping of farmlands also ranks high among the most important commercial drone activities in Asia.  This is especially true in India and Malaysia, which are highly dependent on agricultural exports and face chronic labor shortages.  Drones are a highly efficient force multiplier that can save on the cost of planting seeds and spraying pesticides as well as managing livestock management.  Another burgeoning market is mine inspection. In Mongolia, a Czech drone firm is assisting local authorities to inspect one of the largest copper ore mines in the world.  Drone use for conservation – including habitat monitoring and wildlife preservation – is also ascending the continent’s list of priorities.

In the coming years, as the Asian market continues to expand, there will be innumerable opportunities for foreign drone suppliers to establish mutually respectful and lucrative partnerships with local businesses and governments – that is, if they have the patience to navigate the complex and often frustrating regulatory environment that pervades the region.

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