Aviation: A USD 20,000 unmanned aerial vehicle or drone belonging to the Ugyen Wangchuck Institute for Conservation and Environment is currently grounded until necessary approvals to operate it are acquired.

The 0.7kg drone, Bhutan’s first ever, first flew in June last year, impressing an audience of around 600 spectators with its manoeuvres and high resolution aerial photographs of Chamkhar town.

The institute planned to use the drone to map snow cover, forest degradation and deforestation, forest fires, wildlife and shifting tree lines.  However, it is yet to be cleared for operations by the army.

Additionally, the department of civil aviation (DCA) recently issued a notification not permitting the use of drones until regulations are in place.

The DCA announced that the use of “unauthorised” drones, irrespective of size or weight, is not permitted in Bhutanese airspace.

It states that this is in compliance with section 4.1.2 of the Bhutan Air Navigation Regulations, which states that recreational flying machines, for which regulations do not exist, are banned within the airspace of Bhutan until appropriate regulations are introduced.

DCA director Wangdi Gyaltshen said that the department was currently collecting data on the issue and consulting with other civil aviation agencies.  He pointed out that DCA is facing a shortage of critical staff or experts and therefore would have to wait and see how other agencies deal with the issue.

However, when such a legislation covering operation of drones will be ready is not known.

Even in the West, legislation to cover the operation of commercial drones, a rapidly emerging industry, is only in the process of being developed.

For instance, the US Federal Aviation Administration released its first draft on how drones should be governed, for public feedback just last month.

The proposal covers areas like acceptable age of a drone operator, at what speed and altitude a drone can be operated, among others.

DCA chief administrative officer Karma Wangchuk said that the temporary ban would ensure aviation safety, especially around Paro airport.

As such drones can fly hundreds of feet high, they could pose a threat to aircraft, especially if they are operated around Paro airport, he explained.

Additionally, helicopters also operate in other parts of Bhutan, and therefore drones could also pose a risk to them, it was pointed out.

He said that the drones might have been purchased by individuals for private recreational use.

He clarified that remote controlled aircraft and helicopters that can be found in commercial shops are not covered by the ban.

Meanwhile, the health ministry is also exploring the use of drones to deliver medicine to basic health units and to collect patient samples from the units.  Drones are being seen as a way to overcome Bhutan’s difficult terrain.

Two drones were tested in Thimphu in August last year.

Public health services director general Ugyen Dophu said that the ministry requires between USD 200,000-300,000 before it can call the drone manufacturing company, Matternet, to Bhutan to conduct phase two of the project.

Phase two will involve collection of geographical data, and experimentation and trials to keep the drones in the air for a longer time.

By Gyalsten K Dorji