Unmanned Aerial Vehicles, or Drones, as they are more commonly known, have traditionally been regarded as a military tool, frequently featuring in media reports on US military action as well as TV dramas such as ‘Homeland’ and ‘House of Cards’. They are however, being increasingly put to a much broader spectrum of uses.

Drones have been used by humanitarian organisations to deliver food and medical supplies to crisis-stricken areas. Following typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines, drones were used by international relief agency Medair to map terrain and create a detailed system of 3D aerial images of the region to make relief efforts more efficient. Amazon’s Prime Air development project has also garnered a lot of attention for its goal to use drones to deliver goods to customers in 30 minutes or less. Drones are also now available to buy in electronics stores and are used to capture videos and photographs by amateur and professional photographers.

Data Protection Issues

The increased capability of drone technology has given rise to concerns about privacy and compliance with Data Protection laws.

A recent decision of the Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU) in December 2014 (C‑212/13) (available here (http://eur-lex.europa.eu/legal-content/EN/TXT/?uri=CELEX:62013CJ0212) (See our earlier blog here: http://www.irelandip.com/2014/12/articles/privacy-1/cjeu-restricts-use-of-cctv-surveillance-for-domestic-purposes/ )found that video surveillance by a private person via CCTV outside his home, fell under the Data Protection Directive. The Court found that as the CCTV also monitored a public space, it did not amount to the processing of data in the course of a purely personal or household activity, for the purposes of the ‘household exemption’. 

Security of Information

Another legal concern relating to drones is the security of information that is collected by these drones and then contained in them. Personal data can be contained in the images and information stored on drones. As with other mobile devices containing data, encryption and security of storage are key considerations for drone operators.

Civil Aviation

The Irish Aviation Authority has produced specific guidance on the use of drones which is available here (https://www.iaa.ie/news.jsp?i=507). Recreational users are permitted to fly drones under 20kg without the requirement for permits or training. Drones used for commercial purposes are subject to more stringent requirements and need a permit to operate and permission to fly. The IAA notes that users of small drones must also comply with S.I. No. 25/2000 – Irish Aviation Authority (Rockets and Small Aircraft) Order, 2000. This regulation sets out permitted airspace parameters and rules on where drones can be flown. The rules on where drones can fly are likely to be one of the most contentious issues in this area in the future.

Proposed regulation

The European Commission has developed a strategy to ‘support the progressive development of the RPAS (Remotely Piloted Aircraft Systems) market in Europe. The strategy, entitled ‘A new era for aviation: Opening the aviation market to the civil use of RPAS in a safe and sustainable manner’ was endorsed by the aviation industry in March 2015. The strategy proposes the development of a common safety regulatory framework which aims towards the creation of a single European market for civil drone applications. (http://ec.europa.eu/growth/sectors/aeronautics/rpas/index_en.htm)

As drones become cheaper and more attractive to individuals and companies, their increased use is likely to raise concerns about privacy and safety. A clear regulatory framework is therefore required for the industry to take off.

The implication in relation to drones is that those which carry a camera are subject to the Data Protection Directive and national Data Protection laws. The operators of these drones will therefore need to ensure that they are in compliance with the requirements of Data Protection law in relation to the collection, processing and the retention of data.

The UK Information Commissioner has outlined guidance for users of drones on how to respect the privacy of individuals e.g. informing people before recording commences, considering surroundings, keeping images safe and planning the drone’s flights so as to avoid invading the privacy of others. This guidance is most useful and is available here (https://ico.org.uk/for-the-public/drones/).