Drones in Southeast Asia

By Tekendra Parmar

Need to Know provides context and resources to help you get a better understanding of recent developments in the world of drones.

This past July, the United States and Singapore conducted their annual joint maritime warfare exercises; the 21st annual ‘Cooperation Afloat Readiness and Training’ exercise was one of the first joint exercises in Asia to incorporate both countries’ military unmanned aircraft in a display of this scale. Meanwhile in Cambodia, a German tourist flew a DJI into Cambodia’s Royal Palace—startling the Queen Mother while she rested in her courtyard—leading to his prompt arrest and a ban on UAV use in Phnom Penh. And in Thailand, this past winter Princess Maha Chakri Sirindhorn had an exhibition of her drone photography at the Bangkok Art and Culture Centre. Just a few months later, the military junta tightened its regulations on civilian UAV users.

All of this represents a growing trend in Southeast Asia, where, as in various other parts of the world, drone regulations cannot always keep up with drone proliferation into the civilian sphere, and where there is growing interest in the military applications of unmanned systems. Despite tightening restrictions, drones in Asia are being used in everything from aerial photography to environmental conservation. This is what you need to know about drones in Southeast Asia.


In December 2013, Thai drone handler @Cyberjom captured footage of anti-government protests using his drone, an early instance of the use of drones during protests. In January of this year, the Bangkok Post reported that the Thai Transport Ministry would begin drawing up rules and regulations for the use of UAVs in Thailand. The government reported privacy issues as the main reason for tightening its regulations on unmanned aircrafts. According to press accounts, Thai regulations will divide application into two categories: sports and research purposes, and personal use. For the former, users would need to secure prior permissions and a submit a flight plan. The latter would not be allowed to be fitted with cameras. An exception is made for drones used by the film industry, which is considered alongside the latter category rather than under the former category. According to research conducted by the New America Foundation, as of June 2015 there is no evidence that such laws have been enforced by Thai authorities.

In spite of these regulations, media professionals are increasingly using drones in Thailand, and the country has seen growth in a fledgling domestic drone industry. As in other countries with developing drone regulations, some in the Thai drone industry have been turning to self-regulation. “When companies such as ours takes a pro-active approach during this interim period towards safety and self regulation, we receive very positive support from the authorities,” said Jenny Balee, General Manager of Bangkok Video Production, a film company that regularly uses unmanned aircrafts for aerial photography and videography in Thailand and Myanmar.


Last June, it was reported that the Thai military has been buying weapons from Canadian manufacturers since 2010. Surveillance drones were allegedly among the equipment purchased from various Canadian companies. Nearly $2.2 million of such equipment had been purchased by the Thai military between 2010-11.  

The Royal Thai Airforce also employs various domestic companies to produce unmanned aircrafts. Among these companies is Siam UAV Industries, a robotics company that specializes in unmanned systems, and G-Force Composites, a UAV composite manufacturing company.

Siam UAV

  • The Athena-1 is a surveillance drone used by the Royal Thai Navy and Royal Thai Armed Forces. This UAV has a wingspan of 7 ft and a flight endurance of 40-60 minutes. It can carry payloads such as full color and infrared video cameras, FLIR sensors, and compact still cameras.
  • The Mercury-1 is a surveillance drone used for aerial mapping by the Thai Geo-informatics and Space Technology Development Agency. This UAV comes in a half-scale and full-scale model. The half-scale model has wingspan of 18.5 ft and a flight endurance of 4 hours. The full-scale model has a wingspan of 36 ft and a flight duration of 12 hours. Both carry payloads of Day/Night vision cameras, FLIR cameras, and video gimbals.
  • The Zephyr-1 is a surveillance drone used by the Thai Department of Special Investigations.This UAV has a wingspan of 7 ft and a flight endurance of 40 minutes. It can handle payloads of Day/Night vision cameras, FLIR cameras, and compact cameras.
  • The Boreas-1 is a surveillance drone used by the Thai Department of Special Investigations. This is a multi-rotor UAV that comes in 4, 6, and 8 rotor forms and has a flight endurance of 20 minutes. It can handle payloads of Day/Night vision cameras, FLIR cameras, and DSLR cameras.  

G-Force Composites/Innocon

  • The G-Star is a surveillance drone used by the Royal Thai Airforce. This UAV has a wingspan of 8 ft and a flight endurance of 10 hours. It is equipped with electro-optical/infrared sensors although G-Force and Innocon have not specified the limitations of the G-Star’s payload and the UAV could possibly carry other equipment for reconnaissance purposes.


Civilian, Commercial, and Conservation

  • Last September, Kui Buri National Park and Tub Lan National Park started using UAVs to survey forest land for illegal land encroachment.
  • In December 2013, Thai UAV handler @Cyberjom used his DJI to capture footage of anti-government protests. Cyberjom captured footage of violent encounters between protesters and riot cops.
  • Finish technology pioneer, Jani Hirvinen (formerly of Aeroquad Project and Arducopter), has started a unmanned aircraft company, jDrones, in Thailand. The company specializes in creating personalized commercial drones.

Read on: Faine Greenwood wrote for Slate Magazine that Thai drone regulations came “ironically at the same time as the proposal of Thailand’s new Cyber Security Bill,” a piece of legislation that would permit the mass-surveillance of online platforms and activities.


Of all the countries listed in the region, Singapore has the most extensive drone regulations. On June 4th the Civil Aviation Authority of Singapore launched an online portal for drone operators to apply for permits to fly drones. According to the CAAS website, “two permits—an operator permit and an activity permit—are required for flying drones that weigh more than 7 kilograms (15.4 pounds) for any purpose. Those who fly drones for business purposes will need both permits regardless of the weight of the aircraft. Recreation or research drones do not require a permit if the weight of the aircraft is less than 7kg. However, an activity permit would be required if the unmanned aircraft is flown outdoors in a restricted or dangerous area or within 5km of a military base regardless of operating height. If drones are flown indoors at a private residence or indoor area and the flying does not affect the general public at all, no permits are required.”

CAAS also notes that additional permits would be needed if items are dropped from the unmanned aircraft, if radio frequencies and power sources used for operating the aircraft do not comply with the guidelines of the Infocomm Development Authority of Singapore (IDA), if the aircraft is flown over protected areas or special events, or if photographs are taken in protected areas. A list of such areas has been drawn up, including  the Istana, Parliament House, Supreme Court, and various government buildings, military camps and bases.

The expected processing time for an application is two weeks. Operator permits are valid for up to a year, while activity permits are valid for a single activity or single block of repeated activities.


On July 13th the United States and Singapore conducted their annual joint military exercises. The Cooperation Afloat Readiness and Training Exercise was one of the first such exercises in which both countries used drones in a training exercises of this type. According to The Diplomat, “The Royal Singapore Navy deployed its ScanEagle surveillance drone from the decks of the Victory-class missile corvettes RSS Vigor and RSS Valor, while the USN’s Fire Scout unmanned helicopter will be launched from the Freedom-class littoral combat ship USS Fort Worth.”

Singapore Technologies Aerospace provides a range of unmanned and manned systems to Singapore’s military.

  • The ST Aerospace Fantail 5000 is a Vertical Takeoff and Landing drone modeled after a Coleopter design. It can be used for surveillance and reconnaissance purposes. It has a flight duration of 30 minutes and is capable of hovering under severe weather conditions. Besides surveillance technology, the Fantail can track chemical and biological hazards.
  • The ST Aerospace Skyblade is a catapult-launched reconnaissance drone that can be operated from small clearings and compounds. The Skyblade comes in three models, the III, 360, and IV. Wingspans range from 8-9ft and flight durations of three to 12 hours.


  • Last February, a Singapore-based robotics company, Infinitum Robotics unveiled its prototype of a restaurant server drone, which is intended to combat shortages in Singapore’s service industry.
  • Last April, O’Qualia UAS unveiled a 3D-printed drone. The aircraft, known as the ‘Captor,’ is a fixed wing unmanned system that is delivered in three main parts that click together in-field. The drone has a flight duration of two hours and is customisable for O’Qualia’s various clients.
  • O’Qualia also manufactures the Nomad-B, a reconnaissance and surveillance drone with a wingspan of 11 ft and a flight duration 20+ hours endurance using its EFI 4 stroke engine, and the Pegasus, an industrial-grade aerial imaging and remote inspection drone that comes in four, six, or eight rotor configurations and has a flight endurance of 16 to 45 minutes .
  • Last year, the Coca-Cola Company made an advertisement in which a drone delivered its signature soda to Singapore’s migrant workers.


After a series of incidents involving small hobby and commercial drones, Phnom Penh’s City Hall put an official ban on using drones in Phnom Penh’s airspace in April 2015. Drones are only allowed to fly with permission of City Hall on a pre-arranged flight path. Tourists are still allowed to use UAVs outside of the city, but are urged to exercise caution when flying drones in heavily populated tourist areas such as Angkor Wat. There are no known commercial drone ventures in Cambodia at this time. There are no known native Cambodian unmanned aircraft at this time.

Although aerial photographers are still able to use drones in Cambodia, after a series of arrests City Hall has banned unmanned aircraft use in Phnom Penh. The incidents were as follows:

Watch On: Here’s footage of the Cambodian village of Anluk Leak shot via unmanned aircraft by documentary filmmaker Robert Serrini.


In Kill Chain: The Rise of the High Tech Assassins, Andrew Cockburn describes how Vietnam was an early operational testing ground for U.S. surveillance drones. Today, Vietnam’s Law on Civil Aviation, Article 81 Section 2b, states: “The Ministry of National Defense shall grant flight permission to Vietnamese and foreign military aircrafts operating civil flights in Viet Nam and to unmanned aircrafts.” The legislation, however, is unclear as to how it regulates smaller civilian unmanned aircraft used in the country.


  • In November 2012, Sweden agreed to partner with Vietnam’s Aerospace Association to produce medium-range unmanned aerial vehicles for use in defense and security-related missions. The cooperation agreement will follow through in three parts: During phase one, Sweden will fund two medium-range Magic Eye 1 drones, provide equipment, model design and technology transfer, and send experts to Vietnam.
  • In May 2013, Vietnam’s Academy of Science and Technology successfully tested five native unmanned aerial vehicles. The event was attended by both the Minister of National Defense and Minister of Public Security. The biggest UAV has an operational range of 62 miles, can reach a height of 990 feet, and a maximum speed of 111 miles per hour. The smallest has an operational range of 1 mile, can reach heights of 654 feet, and a maximum speed of 43 miles per hour.
  • In May 2013, Vietnam announced it would buy military drones from Belarus. Belarusian Prime Minister Mikhail Myasnikovich and Vietnam’s Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dang announced further partnerships between the two countries in the fields of science and technology and the prospect of future military collaborations.
  • In July 2013, Viettel, a mobile network operator owned by the Minister of National Defense, introduced the VT-Patrol unmanned aircraft. Following the release of the VT-Patrol, Director General Lt. Gen. Hoang Xuan Anh revealed that Viettel aims to become one of the world’s top international investors in arms development by 2020.  
  • In June, Reuters reported Vietnam is in talks with European and U.S. contractors to buy military drones as well as other aircraft in light of China’s growing presence in the South China Sea.

Vietnam produces various indigenous unmanned aerial vehicles.

  • AV.UAV. Ms1: Surveillance UAV created by the Academy of Science and Technology. This UAV has a wingspan of 4 ft and a flight endurance of 1 hour. It can handle payloads of specialized cameras for surveillance purposes.
  • AV. UAV. S1: Surveillance UAV created by the Academy of Science and Technology. This UAV has a wingspan of 9 ft and a flight endurance of 2 hour. It can handle payloads of specialized cameras for surveillance purposes.
  • AV. UAV. S3: Surveillance UAV created by the Academy of Science and Technology. This UAV has a wingspan of 11 ft and a flight endurance of 5 hours. It can handle payloads of specialized cameras for surveillance purposes.
  • AV. UAV. S4: Surveillance UAV created by the Academy of Science and Technology. This UAV has a wingspan of 16 feet and a flight endurance of 6 hours. It can handle payloads of specialized cameras for surveillance purposes.
  • VT-Patrol UAV: Surveillance UAV produced by Viettel corporations. This UAV has a wingspan of 10 ft and a flight endurance of 15-24 hours. It can handle payloads of infrared cameras and can transmit information in real time and recognize a human target 2,000 ft away. Viettel has plans to arm this vehicle with missiles in the future.



Prior to the introduction of domestic drone regulations this year, Indonesians have used drones for a variety of applications, including environmental conservation and traffic management. On July 28th the Ministry of Transportation introduced regulations that will limit the areas in which civilians may use unmanned aircrafts. Licenses will also need to be acquired in order to fly UAVs in Indonesian airspace. The new regulations lays out restrictions on where drones can fly, and also requires drone users to register their flight plans with the local civil navigation authority. In addition, changes to the flight plan must be submitted to the Ministry of Transportation seven days prior to the operation of the unmanned aircraft.



Drones in Indonesia have been used in various environmental protection and conservation programs. Here is a list of environmental campaigns that have made use of drones:


In June of 2014, Matthew Cua, the founder of SkyEye Inc, was detained by communist rebels in the Philippines’ Mindanao province after flying his company’s unmanned aircrafts over a rebel stronghold. Although Cua was on an anti-logging mission, rebels accused Cua’s company of using drones for surveillance and reconnaissance missions on behalf of the government. Cua points towards U.S. targeted drone strikes in the region as reason for the rebels’ paranoia. “The U.S military complicates work,” said Cua, “it gives drones a bad name.”

The Philippines’ drone regulations were implemented in June 2014. Last month, the Civil Aviation Authority issued its very first Certificate of Authorization for commercial drone use, to SRDP Engineering and Consulting Incorporated, which uses unmanned aircrafts for mapping and surveying purposes. Currently, operators must hold either a flight crew license (or a military equivalent) or an air traffic control license, and provide proof of experience flying drones, in addition to passing through a training course. Operators are required to register their equipment with CAAP.

On April 15th 2015, Philippines Civil Aviation Authority (CAAP) in collaboration with the Bureau of Customs started to  regulate the informal importation of drones. Passengers traveling to the Philippines with a drone must secure a clearance and pay a luxury tax of 100,000 Philippines Pesos or approximately $2,200. The drone will be held at the airport until CAAP certification is acquired. The certification is a promissory note signifying the owner will not operate the drone until receiving the proper registration as specified by the CAAP.


In the early 2000s the Philippines military began investing in domestically produced drones. The drones, named after famous pin-up girls of the time—the Rica, Rufa, Alexandra, Assunta, and Claudia—were made from using off-the-shelf components and basic materials such as wood and foam. Speaking on Filipino television, the head designer for the project, OB Mapua, described it as a “DIY project.” The domestic program stemmed from the desire to produce a cheaper home-grown alternative to the more expensive unmanned aircrafts produced abroad. However, the program was halted due to overwhelming corruption in the military siphoning funds from the program. Here are recent developments in the use of drones in Philippines military sphere:

  • In February 2012, the United States used targeted drone strikes to target Abu Sayyaf of the Jemaah Islamiyah organization, marking the first time a drone was used in Southeast Asia for a targeted killing operation. The drone was used on the southern island of Jolo, and provoked controversy over national sovereignty, as well as widespread mistrust of unmanned flying aircraft in certain regions.
  • In December 2013, the Philippines army revealed that it had used its indigenous Raptor and Knight Falcon drones in standoffs with the Moro National Liberation Front. Little information is available about these two drones, and their use in this operation was the first publicly acknowledged use of drones in domestic operations by the Philippines army.
  • In February 2015, The Diplomat reported that Lt. Col Harold M. Cabunoc, spokesperson for the Philippines military, had stated that the Philippines was looking to acquire American drones. The statement came after Washington’s recent policy shift allowing for the export of commercial and military drones.


  • Unmanned System Consulting makes and operates drones for aerial mapping. The company also develops small drone systems for use in humanitarian activities, provides photomapping services, and also provides drone use training.
  • SRDP Consulting was the first company in the Philippines to be issued a certificate of authority to operate drones commercially. SRDP provides aerial imagery for surveillance, mining, topographical, forestry and agriculture, and disaster prevention/management purposes.
  • SkyEye UAV Services produces drones for anti-logging, real estate, aerial image collection, and emergency services. SkyEye aircraft are not for sale to the public.
    • The Super Surfer Giga has a wingspan of 8 ft and a flight duration of 50 minutes. It is capable of carrying a variety of imaging systems.
    • The X-8 Flying Wing has a wingspan of 7 ft and a flight duration of 50 minutes.
  • In November 2013, during Typhoon Haiyan, drones were used to provide disaster relief. Similarly, in 2014 during Typhoon Hagupit, Aeryon Labs, an Ontario based company, lent several of drones to Global Medic, in order to aid in search and rescue operations.
  • In July 2013, the Filipino government announced it would use unmanned aircraft to fight illegal logging in the Mindanao provinces of Davao Oriental and Compostela Valley. The region is known as a communist stronghold. Two communist factions, The League of Filipino Students and the Bagong Alyansang Makabayan, accuse the government of using drones for surveillance purposes rather than monitoring illegal mining.
  • During the Pope’s visit in January 2015 a “no drone” policy was enacted in Cebu City with a fine of between 7,000 to 11,000 USD on violators.
  • In March, the government of Toledo in Cebu province came under scrutiny after it was revealed that the government paid 800,000 pesos ($17,000) for hobby drones costing 50,000 pesos ($1,000).


Malaysian unmanned aircraft regulations state that unmanned aircrafts must meet or exceed the safety regulations of manned aircrafts. Operators must receive authorization from the Department of Civil Aviation before flying an UAV.


In February 2014 the Malaysian Maritime Enforcement Agency announced that it would use drones to spot smugglers and other maritime incursions in Malaysian waters. In March of this year, Swedish defence company Saab was awarded a contract to provide Electronic Payload Systems to the Royal Malaysian Air Force. The Malay armed forces operate various unmanned aircraft. These drones are produced by Composite Technology Research Malaysia:

  • The Aludra MK-1 is used for surveillance and reconnaissance. It has a wingspan of 20 ft and a flight endurance of 3 hours. It can transmit real-time video and can fly along pre-programmed flight paths.
  • The SR-08 is used for frontline surveillance and reconnaissance. It has a wingspan of 2 ft and a flight endurance of 1 hour 40 minutes. It can handle a payload of video, photo, and infrared cameras. This past March an SR-10 model was announced by Composite Technology Research Malaysia.  
  • The Intisar 100 is a remotely piloted helicopter system marketed as a low-cost solution to aerial surveillance. This aircraft has a flight endurance of 1 hour and can hover while tracking targets.
  • The Intisar 300 is a remotely piloted helicopter used in reconnaissance missions and has a combined flight duration of 1.5 hours: 90 minutes with a gas engine and 40 minutes with its electric engine.


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