What Are The Rules About Operating A Drone In Australia?

Scored a drone/quadcopter/flying camera rig for Christmas? Good on you! Now how do you go about flying the damn thing without falling foul of Australia's flight feds at the Civil Aviation Safety Authority? Here are the rules.

The Civil Aviation Safety Authority, or CASA, looks after flying machines above our heads all around the nation. As a result, it's also responsible for setting the rules about the safe use of drones in Australia.

CASA breaks down drone operations into two categories: commercial and civil/hobbyist use, with different rules for each. Updated December 2015, visit casa.gov.au/RPA for the latest.

Under relaxed rules now delayed until 2016, drones under 2kg will no longer need approval from CASA before commencing flight operations in relation to commercial work. Commercial pilots still need to obtain their operator’s certificates, however.

CASA will work on an expanded set of regulations for hobby and consumer-grade drones once the commercial weight approval rule has been implemented.

These new rules will address things like flying drones beyond the operator’s line-of-sight, operating a drone in an airspace where other aircraft are flying and autonomous drones that require little to no input from operators to fly.

In general, don't think you can ignore the rules and get away with it. As one Queensland drone operator found out, posting video online that showed rules being broken resulted in a hefty $850 fine. CASA has been scouring YouTube for Aussie drone pilots breaking the rules in their aerial videos and issuing fines accordingly.

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Civil/Hobby Drone Use

As things stand today, pivate operators don't need approval from CASA before taking flight with their drones, but there are some rules that need to be respected.

The rules are simple:

• Stay at least 30 metres away from people with your drone.

• Keep your drone under 120 metres (400 feet).

No night flying or flying through fog/cloud. You should be able to see the aircraft with your own eyes (rather than through point-of-view camera/screen/glasses) at all times.

• You may not operate your drone above a large gathering of people (e.g.: fireworks, at sporting events, over crowds at the beach or groups of protesters).

• You must keep your drone within sight while you're operating it.

• You may not operate your drone within 5.5km of an airport and a place where planes take off or land from.

CASA also reminds us that:

• The privacy of other people should be respected by not flying near homes and backyards.
• Never fly a drone in an active bushfire area as there is a real risk of a mid-air collision with a fire fighting aircraft, which could cause an accident. Fire fighting aircraft will be grounded if a drone is conducting unauthorised flights on a fire ground, hampering work to control the fire and putting people and property at risk.
• Drones should also be kept away from police operations, accident scenes, building fires and rescue operations.

If you violate these rules, CASA can take action against you in the form of infringement notices (read: fines) up to $8500 per offence. If you put people at risk or seriously injure someone, the penalties are far more serious and will be dealt with on a case by case basis.

For example, a private drone operator was allegedly using a quadcopter above a marathon race. The drone reportedly failed and struck a woman in the head causing serious injury.

The CASA took the case before the Commonwealth Director of Public Prosecutions to see whether or not criminal charges could be laid against the operator.

Commercial Drone Use

The CASA defines the commercial use of a drone as anything you're doing for hire or reward. For example, if you're a production company strapping a camera to a drone for the purposes of gathering footage, or if you're flying something into the air to test it via a drone, that's commercial use.

Before you can even get a drone remote in your hands for commercial purposes, CASA requires that pilots undergo a certification process in order to get an Operator's Certificate. That demonstrates that you can not only fly a drone safely, but also that you're aware of rules and regulations relating to drone flights in Australia.

The regulations don't stop there, either: for any drone flights, commercial operators need explicit approval from CASA before you can even leave the ground with your flying machine.

That approval involves filing several important documents with the regulator, including a flight plan and copies of your certifications.

If a commercial entity is caught operating a drone without any of these things, the flight feds will can come down on you. Hard.

For starters, they can revoke a a commercial entity's Operator's Certificate, which is kind of like having your driver's licence suspended as a taxi driver. It's all bad. Drone operators can re-apply for their Operator's Certificate, but that request goes through the CASA which has the power to refuse or place conditions on any new permit.

The CASA can also consider the use of infringement notices or criminal charges for commercial operators if offences are serious enough.

In new rules now delayed until 2016: Australia's civil aviation safety body announced plans to slightly loosen the rules around commercial drone operation, making it easier for you to make a bit of money on the side from your drone photography or drone video business.

Lightweight drones — those under 2 kilograms, which would include the popular combination of DJI Phantom 3 plus a GoPro or other compact video camera setup — will be allowed to be operated by commercial drone pilots or companies undertaking commercial work, without having to apply and be granted a commercial drone operation licence.

For companies and operators to be exempt from those licencing requirements, though, the drones they operate will have to follow the same rules as recreational users:

• Stay at least 30 metres away from people with your drone.

• Keep your drone under 120 metres. Commercial drone operators can go higher with special approvals.

• You may not operate your drone above a large gathering of people (e.g.: fireworks, at sporting events, over crowds at the beach or groups of protesters).

• You must keep your drone within sight while you're operating it.

• You may not operate your drone within 5.5km of an airport and a place where planes take off or land from.

Drone operators' licences are still in high demand at CASA; the authority has a backlog of over applications for commercial pilots.

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What do you think of the drone rules? Have you accidentally broken them before? Are they easy to follow? Tell us in the Gizmodo comments!

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