DRONES, the unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV) loved by hobbyists, but which have important everyday commercial and other applications, are starting to become an issue in the Caribbean, raising unusual questions for governments and the tourism industry about freedom, safety and security.

In the last month it has emerged, for example, that while an estimated 5,000 drones are using Dominican Republic airspace, almost all of their owners are not complying with the local regulations covering the devices.

In a recent interview with Diario Libre, the Director of the Dominican Institute of Civil Aviation’s (IDAC) Flight Operations Department, Pablo Cabrera, said that since April 2015 when regulations were introduced to control the use of UAVs in Dominican airspace, just 27 operators had registered at IDAC. Mr Cabrera said that most who had done so were those who undertook commercial activities, such as filming, or topographical measuring for engineering or agriculture.

In Barbados, authorities there are so concerned about UAV use, that they recently announced a 12-month prohibition on their importation. The Customs and Excise Department said that the ban from April 1 would allow the authorities to complete a legal framework to govern the use of such devices and determine the number in operation in Barbados.

A spokesperson for the Customs and Excise Department noted that concerns had been raised about the potential for UAV misuse and the risks posed to safety, security and privacy, noting that during the last two years there had been a significant increase in the number of drones for commercial and recreational use being allowed into the country.

As the online hobbyist publication dronelife.com demonstrates, taking your drone on a vacation, particularly for younger travellers, has become what the publication describes as an ‘epic way to catalogue your summer exploits’; is much cooler than taking selfies; and is the best way of ‘capturing your visit to the beaches of the Caribbean’.

Fun aside, Dronelife recognises the growing challenges faced by visitors traveling with a UAV, with its readers citing examples of having to pay duty in the Bahamas, a complete ban in Nicaragua, the more common experience of uncertainty among customs officers and the police in nations from St Vincent to Cuba, and a lack of certainty about which, if any, Caribbean country requires a license to fly a UAV. There are also it seems, significant airline safety concerns relating to checking-in drones because of the lithium batteries they use.

What this demonstrates is how unprepared the region is for new technology. It also makes clear that there is no joined up Caribbean approach as to their use by either citizens or visitors, that better and more consistent regulations are now required, and in the case of tourists, appropriate information should be made available before they depart for the region.

The trouble with this is that few Caribbean islands have relevant legislation other than in relation to kite flying.  Even where there are UAV-specific regulations, it is unlikely that any country has a police force equipped or able to catch those who break the rules. Moreover, it is clear from online blogs by drone flyers that it is very hard for them to discover what local controls exist as to where they may or may not fly their craft without permission.

The paramount issue is of course safety and security. Drones pose a significant danger if used close to airports and are a potential threat if flown over or near military or other facilities such as prisons or certain government offices, where elevated security is required.

This is resulting in an increasing number of warnings from local authorities in the region to private and commercial operators, noting that they could face prosecution if they are caught flying their devices in designated zones.

However, even then the rules are far from consistent. For instance, Barbados already restricts recreational flying of UAVs to four designated areas in the country and requires an operating license, while other countries prefer an approach that designates where they cannot be flown. 

On the positive side, commercially used UAVs have become a key support and promotional vehicle for the marketing of hotels in many Caribbean destinations and locations, as well as to sell real estate to overseas buyers. This is because of their bird-like ability to fly and swoop over islands, hotels, beaches and the countryside, providing high resolution panoramic and close up pictures in ways that, with the right soundtrack and voice-over, add dramatically to the ability to romanticise and sell a vacation or property.  They also have an increasingly important role in the Caribbean in monitoring environmental issues, for weather forecasting, and in relation to national security.

As a consequence, many companies are emerging in the region and internationally specialising in UAV photography and other applications and are actively selling their services to governments, tourist boards, hoteliers, politicians and all manner of local and international agencies.

Offsetting this is the issue of personal privacy. Hoteliers and the tourism industry are regularly concerned about how to protect their VIP and celebrity guests who value the approach that most Caribbean destinations and citizens take in respecting their privacy. However, this is changing as the international media have begun to pay large sums for pictures or video footage of movie stars, footballers, politicians, and others in the privacy of their villa or hotel.

This is leading to drone users from paparazzi to individuals not just seeking out the well-known, but in some cases picturing visitors who have come to the Caribbean because it offers them the opportunity to enjoy themselves in the company they chose.

Drones are yet another form of disruptive technology that governments, the security services and the tourism industry in the Caribbean will have to come to terms with. The Caribbean cannot avoid being in the stream of global change meaning that whatever new technologies takes hold in North America and Europe, will become the new normal in the region.

Uber, Airbnb, electric vehicles, cashless transactions, cyber security, and now UAVs are all issues the region requires a response to if it is to embrace the ways in which the world and its own young people’s expectations are changing.

The challenge in the case of UAVs will be to determine how best to balance security, regulation and privacy, against their commercial value and the individual freedom that their operation implies.

David Jessop, Expert Contributor

David Jessop is the Executive Director of the Caribbean Council. In a forty-year career, he has provided high level support and advice to industries, associations, governments and companies on investment, trade policy and political issues in the Caribbean, the UK and continental Europe