Up up and away for drones

Key Points
  • Licensing requirements for small RPAs weighing 2 kgs or less will be greatly simplified for both commercial and recreational users.
  • Australian regulation of remotely piloted aircraft (drones) (RPA) is about to be changed by new Commonwealth regulations effective from 29 September.
  • 11 new strict liability offences will apply  for breaches of the new regulations including breaches of strict mandatory  operational safety restrictions.


From 29 September 2016 new rules for the operation of remotely piloted aircraft (RPA) in Australia will come into effect.  The new rules have been introduced after a thorough review of Australia’s existing RPA regulations by the Australian Aviation & Safety regulator, the Civil Aviation Safety Authority (CASA). The review has come about because of the proliferation of RPA in the airspace both within Australia and internationally at commercial and recreational levels.  Historically Australia was quick off the mark in establishing a legal framework covering the use of RPAs in Australia under Part 101 of the Civil Aviation Safety Regulations (CASR 101). Under CASR 101 all RPAs regardless of size and the purpose of use are to be operated under the same mandatory operating conditions. Commercial users of RPAs (as opposed to recreational users) are also required to hold an operator’s certificate and a controller’s certificate, the former for the operating entity and the latter for the individual remote pilot. Additional approvals and certificates are required for the operation of “large RPAs” of more than 150 kilograms in weight.

Commercial operators in Australia have long complained that the existing certification process is onerous, expensive and time consuming. More generally significant concerns have been raised about safety and privacy issues consequent upon the increasing use of RPAs.

The new regulations (announced in March 2016) simplify the regulatory requirements for RPA operations which are considered to be lower risk based on size and operational use. These will be known as “excluded RPAs”.  All persons operating very small RPAs (that is weighing two kilograms or less) for reward will be exempt from requiring CASA certification or licensing approval. Instead those operators will only be required to notify CASA of their identity and the nature of the proposed flight at least five business days before the operation, and to ensure the flight is then conducted in accordance with a set of prescribed operating conditions including the following:

  • During the day.
  • With a visual line of sight maintained by the remote crew at all times.
  • Less than 400 feet above ground level.
  • In non populous areas including more than 30 metres from any person not directly involved in its operation.
  • Not within 5.5 kilometres of a controlled aerodrome.

CASA has created an online notification system for use by commercial operators for that purpose.  It will be an offence to operate such a flight without the appropriate notification to CASA. Remote pilots must always remain in control of RPAs.

These exemptions flow from CASA’s consideration that very small RPAs do not present any real risks to aviation or harm to people on property on the ground and other airspace users as long as they are operated under the mandatory operating conditions.

Conversely RPAs with a gross weight of more than two kilograms in all operating conditions and all RPAs operating outside the prescribed operating conditions will still require CASA approval of the licensing when operated for commercial purposes. By way of concession private landholders operating RPAs will be permitted to carry out some commercial operations on their own land without the need for licensing or other approval from CASA.

The new regulations create 11 new strict liability offences including operating an RPA beyond visual sight, conducting non-excluded RPA operations without holding the appropriate certification, not complying with the operational documentary practices and procedures. There will now be 20 strict liability offences with penalties up to about AUD9,000.00.

The new regulations reflect CASA’s views about the relevant safety risks posed by RPA operations and essentially these are now split into two levels based upon the weight of the RPA. Whether this assessment is realistic has been questioned by some observers especially as treating commercial or non-recreational RPAs under two kilograms as exempt from the licensing requirements is likely to see an explosion of RPA flights by unlicensed and uninsured operators with little knowledge of airspace rules and safety. CASA acknowledges that privacy issues are beyond its remit.  However there can be no doubt that the new regulations represent a significant effort by CASA to modify Australia’s RPA Regulations, streamlining them, imposing mandatory obligations for all RPAs and largely confining the regulatory process to RPAs weighing over two kilograms.  Generally the terminology adopted by CASA in the new regulations matches terminology used by the International Civil Aviation Organisation.

Post by Derek Luxford 

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