International Law Concerning the Status and Marking of Remotely Piloted Aircraft

12 Pages Posted: 21 Feb 2013

See all articles by Ian Henderson

Ian Henderson

Law School, University of Adelaide; Asia Pacific Centre for Military Law

Date Written: January 01, 2011


Significant media and legal attention has been paid to the use of remotely piloted aircraft (RPA). The legal issues discussed have generally concerned the use of force, the status of the operators of the aircraft (e.g., military or civilian intelligence agent), the status of the intended target, or the injury caused to someone and the damage caused to something other than the intended target. Comparatively little attention has been paid to legal issues concerning the aircraft themselves; however, the rise in the use and variety of RPA highlights some interesting legal issues. This article looks at the international law concerning the "status" of RPA and the legal requirement, if any, for applying "markings" to RPA. Markings on aircraft are important indicators of an aircraft's status, including between civil and state aircraft, and between military aircraft and other aircraft. The article concludes that whether an aircraft is a state aircraft is principally a functional test and that, strictly speaking, an aircraft need not have any particular markings to have the status of a state aircraft. Nonetheless, the lack of markings is likely to prejudice the finding that an aircraft is a state aircraft - particularly by States other than the operating State. The law is much clearer on the requirement that aircraft have markings in an international armed conflict for that aircraft to have the status of a military aircraft. This is important, because in an international armed conflict, only military aircraft should exercise belligerent rights. The law of marking for military aircraft is customary in nature, and the law may be evolving toward not requiring such markings on small RPA where the size of the RPA means that any markings will be so small as to serve no practical purpose.

Keywords: air, military, aircraft, state, state aircraft, military aircraft, Chicago convention, RPA, UAV, drone, marking, markings, remotely piloted aircraft, status

Suggested Citation

Henderson, Ian, International Law Concerning the Status and Marking of Remotely Piloted Aircraft (January 01, 2011). Denver Journal of International Law and Policy, Vol. 39, No. 4, 2011, Available at SSRN:

Ian Henderson (Contact Author)

Law School, University of Adelaide ( email )


Asia Pacific Centre for Military Law



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