Whether a beginner, a serious aviation enthusiast, or just a fan of gadgets, many of you will have received drones as Christmas gifts. Unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) have surged in popularity and affordability in recent years, and there’s no doubt that recreational drone use is on the rise as a result.
But not all recreational drone users know the law — or if they do, they don’t appear to be following it. There has been a string of near misses between drones and other aircraft, and other cases of irresponsible use.
Only last month, a recreational drone user was investigated by Australia’s Civil Aviation Safety Authority (CASA) after evidently flying a drone over a crowded Bunnings carpark to pick up a sausage at a sausage sizzle.
In the run-up to Christmas, UN aviation officials this month warned anyone getting a drone to make sure they learn how to operate it safely. So if Santa has brought you one, here’s what you need to know.
Get on board
In Australia, if you want to fly your drone for fun, you don’t need CASA’s approval – as long as you follow the authority’s simple safety rules. Recreational drone operators must comply with CASA’s rules (known as its standard operating conditions).
You must only fly your drone within visual line of sight – that is, where you are able to see the drone with your own eyes, rather than with the help of binoculars or a telescope, for example. What’s more, you can only fly in visual meteorological conditions, which generally means no night flights.
In most Australian cities, you can only fly your drone up to a maximum altitude of 120 metres – most of this airspace is considered controlled airspace. To fly a recreational drone any higher, you must seek approval from CASA and adhere to any associated conditions.
During flight, you must keep your drone at least 30 metres from anyone who is not directly associated with its operation. The drone must also not be flown over populated areas (that is, areas that are sufficiently crowded that the drone would pose an unreasonable risk to the life, safety or property of someone present). This includes crowded beaches or parks, or sports ovals where a game is in progress.
Better check the rules before going for shots like this. Gustavo Frazao/shutterstock.com
There is a general prohibition on flying a drone in a way that creates a hazard to another aircraft, person or property. A “hazard” may be interpreted fairly broadly. To be safe, CASA recommends keeping your drone at least 5.5km away from any airfield. Operations within 5.5km of an airfield are allowed in some instances, as long as they are not on the approach and departure path, and would not otherwise get in the way of aircraft using the airfield.
Recreational drone users are also advised to respect personal privacy by not recording or taking photos of people without their consent. While privacy concerns are not within CASA’s purview, operators may find themselves in breach of state and territory privacy or trespass laws, depending on how and where the drone is flown, and whether audio, video or photographic footage is recorded.
As a general rule, drones cannot be flown for money or economic reward without a specific licence. There are, however, two new instances where such a certificate is not required: for commercial-like operations over your own land, and for commercial flights with very small drones (under 2kg) provided that the pilot notifies CASA at least five business days beforehand, and adheres to all the existing rules for recreational drone use.
Having considered all the rules, the Bunnings sausage sizzle incident starts to look less like a harmless jape and more like a multiple breach of the rules (although the video’s author has claimed that the video was an edited composite rather than all shot during a single flight).
The video appears to show several breaches of the rules, including: flying a drone out of visual line of sight (assuming that it is being piloted from the backyard hot tub depicted in the video); flying within 30m of people; and flying over a populated area. The operator is potentially facing a fine of up to A$9,000.
If you’re worried your new drone might get you into similar hot water, CASA provides significant guidance to help operators avoid infringing the rules. That way, you can make sure your high-flying gift doesn’t end up ruining your Christmas cheer.
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.
However, an amendment to legislation for commercial drone operation in Australia, means that as of 29 September 2016, small operators can conduct commercial work without an operator's certificate or remote pilot license. If you have a drone under 2kg and want to do commercial work, you won't have to apply for the $5,000 to $10,000 "Unmanned Aircraft Operators Certificate" in order to do so — but you will need to inform the Civil Aviation Safety Authority (CASA) with a once-off registration.
Operators also need to abide by "mandatory conditions" or risk penalties. The conditions include flying only in day visual line of sight, below 120 metres, keeping more than 30 metres away from other people, flying more than 5.5 kilometres from controlled aerodromes and not operating near emergency situations.
Private landholders are also be allowed to carry out "a range of activities" on their own land without the need for approvals. This includes remotely piloted aircraft up to 25kg, as long as no money has changed hands for the flights.
The changes are designed to "cut red tape" without compromising on safety, CASA's Director of Aviation Safety, Mark Skidmore said in a statement.
"While safety must always come first, CASA's aim is to lighten the regulatory requirements where we can," Mr Skidmore said. "The amended regulations recognise the different safety risks posed by different types of remotely piloted aircraft.
"People intending to utilise the new very small category of commercial operations should understand this can only be done if the standard operating conditions are strictly followed and CASA is notified.
"Penalties can apply if these conditions are not met."