01 November, 2015 by Nicholas O'Flaherty
Unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) or drones are valuable scientific instruments in Antarctica but are not toys for tourists. That’s the ruling from the latest meeting of the International Association of Antarctica Tour Operators (IAATO). For the upcoming 2015-2016 season, the IAATO members have agreed not to allow the recreational use of drones in the coastal areas of Antarctica.
Given the increasing popularity of drones, the IAATO has been debating their use for some time. The organisation consulted with its members and considered issuing permits for the UAVs but instead decided on a ban. The organisation will review the ban next year.
The 26th annual meeting in Rotterdam, the Netherlands, was the largest meeting to date with over 130 people in attendance. The delegates also decided on the formation of a new Fly/Cruise Working Group to discuss tourism in the Antarctic.
The Key Wording
The new chair of IAATO’s executive committee, Bob Simpson, said “IAATO meetings are remarkable in that its members, many of whom are competitors in the business world, can sit down together and constructively discuss how to manage their activities in a way that will have no more than a minor or transitory impact on the Antarctic environment. It’s a challenge embraced by all members.”
The phrase “minor or transitory impact” is one of the founding requirements of the IAATO. At present, the recreational use of drones cannot be guaranteed to meet this key criterion.
Drones can weigh up to 55 pounds and could crash and contaminate the pristine environment. Their spinning blades can cause serious injury as singer Enrique Iglesias discovered when he tried to grab one at his Tijuana concert. They could ruin the experience of other tourists who would prefer to listen to the creaking glaciers and astounding wildlife than the buzz of a drone.
Drones have exploded in popularity over the past few years. Their commercial uses include surveying, mapping, construction, civil engineering, mining and security to name a few. Recreational drones are used for anything from photography to racing competitions. Drones have even been caught being used to smuggle drugs from Mexico into the United States. A second-hand UAV can now be purchased online for less than USD$1000.
The Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International is a non-profit organisation with more than 7,500 enthusiasts of unmanned robotics. It lobbies various authorities on behalf of its members not to heavily regulate drone usage. But at least for now its members will not be allowed to take an aerial video of themselves on the ice.
The ban does not mean people will be deprived of the spectacular aerial views that the drones can provide of this continent. The IAATO recognises that UAVs are excellent tools for research and documentary filmmaking. These activities are not included in the ban.