The citizens protesting against the regime of Aleksandar Vučić across Serbia for months gathered in mid-April outside the House of the National Assembly in Belgrade, at a big rally under the slogan „All as One – One of the Five Million”.
The rally lasted a record five hours, while there has been no definitive estimate of the number of demonstrators to date – it varies from several thousand, as government representatives say, to several tens of thousands, as counted by the opposition and certain media.
Across town, in the Dedinje quarter, several people watched the protest from a Pink TV studio, and Željko Mitrović was among them. The owner of Pink TV, a pro-government television with frequent negative campaigns targeting those who do not agree with or support the regime, was among the first to estimate that the crowd at the rally numbered just 7,500 people, which he called a debacle of the opposition.
Mitrović’s television broadcast the rally live via unmanned aircraft, so-called drones.
“Today was marked by a total information war, which is why we prepared very well technically and got six drones up in the air and had a complete image all day,” Mitrović said.
According to the footage shown by Mitrović, the Pink drones flew over Belgrade City Hall and Pioneers Park near the Presidency building, recording the rally in front of the National Assembly.
The Center for Investigative Journalism of Serbia (CINS) reveals that Mitrović and the people who were shooting footage for him had failed to notify the Serbia and Montenegro Air Traffic Services (SMATSA) and the Civil Aviation Directorate of the Republic of Serbia, even though they weren’t allowed to fly without doing so.
Sima Marković of the association gathering people who use unmanned aircraft – the National Cluster of Unmanned Aircraft and Related Sectors, told CINS that most of these flights are not reported, which is wrong from a safety standpoint. In that way, the law and the state are cheated, along with people who have regular licenses and pay fees for them.
“Other licensed fliers do not know that you’re flying and an accident can happen. (…) Aircraft that carry cameras are heavy. Imagine 3-4 kilograms falling from a height of 30 meters. You know what kind of impact that is? Plus the speed at which the aircraft was moving,” said Marković. Aircraft that collide, he adds, can fall on people and kill them, while propellers can cut off fingers.
Namely, the rules state that those who wish to shoot aerial footage, anywhere in Serbia, besides having a registered aircraft and passing a knowledge test, must request certain permits for each flight.
Representatives of the Directorate, which has the power to enact regulations and control the area of air traffic, told CINS they did not have information that the aircraft broadcasting live footage on Pink TV had had permission to fly, and that they did not know how said footage had been made.
The Ministry of Defense is also involved in the permission-granting process, because according to the Defense Act it must control any potential recording and publicizing of footage of military facilities, says Saša Đorđević of the Belgrade Center for Security Policy.
Since the Assembly and the Presidency are in restricted airspace, the aircraft also should have gotten the Interior Ministry’s consent. “The Ministry of Interior provides an opinion because buildings protected by the Security Unit Protecting Specific Persons and Facilities, which is part of the police Directorate, are located in that part of Belgrade,” Đorđević explains and adds:
“Anyone manning a drone in restricted airspace in Belgrade without the consent of the Ministry of Defense, Ministry of Interior and permission from the Civil Aviation Directorate, is violating the law. The penalty for legal entities is a fine ranging from 500,000 to two million dinars.”
CINS journalist did not receive answers as to whether the aircraft had the required permission from two more ministries – the Ministry of Interior and the Ministry of Defense.
Nonetheless, even if Pink TV had obtained those permits, it should not have flown on April 13 because it had not informed SMATSA about it. The agency managing air traffic harmonizes a drone’s flight plan with the flights of all other aircraft (airplanes, helicopters), so it is necessary for it know who will fly, when, where and for what purpose. That is why fliers file a request for, in expert terms, “airspace allocation,” without which they cannot fly.
Data presented by SMATSA and the Directorate show that airspace allocation was not requested for that day for the area in front of the National Assembly, City Hall, the Presidency building, and Nikola Pašić Square, i.e. the places in which, according to television footage, the Pink TV drones flew.
According to a list delivered by SMATSA, on that day only one unmanned aircraft had permission to fly near Terazije street, but it did not shoot footage for Pink TV, CINS learned.
Flights within a 500-meter radius of a state institution also need to be approved by the owner or user of the facility.
Information War More Important than Regulations
The rules were introduced a few years ago, when the use of so-called drones became more common. Abiding by the regulations ought to guarantee that these aircraft will be used safely, primarily for the sake of the people over whose heads they are flying, as well as for the sake of airplanes, which can be seriously jeopardized by drone flights.
Sima Marković warns about the danger of collision between an unmanned aircraft and a passenger airplane in the process of landing at an airport. He explained that when landing the pilot flies the airplane lower, at an average speed of about 200 km per hour and is unlikely to notice an unmanned aircraft. If a drone were to fly into an airplane engine, there would be an explosion and the airplane would probably crash, Marković explains.
The only aircraft that the aforementioned regulations do not apply to are, as professionals call them, “toys,” i.e. unmanned aircraft weighing up to half a kilogram, with the ability to fly at small speeds and lower altitudes. CINS’ interlocutors who work with unmanned aircraft said that the Pink TV drones do not fall into that category.
The defense and interior ministries do not need permission from the Directorate either, but even they have to announce their flights to SMATSA, says Marković.
Restricted airspace; Source: Civil Aviation Directorate
Other flights, on the other hand, must have permits and the required fees paid. Hypothetically speaking, Pink TV should pay around 5,000 dinars in total for all of its aircraft.
In an interview with CINS, Marković says that, in his experience, it takes several days to get the necessary permits, but the procedure is slightly longer in the case of restricted airspace, because the Ministry of Interior has to green-light it, too.
According to data found on the Directorate’s official website, the space in which the protest rally took place is classified as restricted airspace.
Željko Mitrović did not answer a phone call and SMS text message from the CINS journalist.
In their reply to CINS Civil Aviation Directorate officials said that the Interior Ministry was in charge of launching misdemeanor proceedings for violations of the law through the use of unmanned aircraft. They point to provisions of the Police Act, the endangerment of safety by remote devices from the Public Peace and Order Act, as well as provisions of the Air Transport Act which, among other things, pertain to the endangerment of aviation safety and security and the use of unmanned aircraft contrary to the regulations passed by the Directorate.
The Ministry of Interior and the Directorate did not answer CINS’ question about whether they had initiated proceedings in the Pink TV case.
Permits Pink TV was obligated to have; graphic presentation: CINS