By Tal Williams
Whilst 2002 saw Australia become the first country to introduce legislation relating to civilian drone use, current strict drone regulations have caused commercial drone operations in Australia to lag behind those in other parts of the world.
Several major drone transportation companies began in Australia, yet Wing Aviation has only just become the first approved drone delivery service. The Australian government has defended current regulations, with safety being noted as a top priority.
So, do Australia's laws actually protect the citizens, or are they stunting Australian advancement with respect to drone technology and its use in modern society?
The basic rules for drones (Unmanned Aerial Vehicles 'UAVs') in Australia are set out in Part 101 of the Civil Aviation Safety Regulations 1998 ('Regulations'), and are enforced by the Civil Aviation Safety Authority ('CASA'). These Regulations provide a strict code on flying for all UAVs, with exceptions for certain pre-approved circumstances.
The do's and don'ts of flying Unmanned Aerial Vehicles
- Only fly during the day, avoiding clouds, fog and/or heavy rain;
- Have an unobstructed view of drone; and
- Keep drone within visual sight at all times.
- Fly higher than 120m;
- Fly closer than 30m to people;
- Fly near emergency situations;
- Fly in prohibited or restricted airspace; and
- Fly closer than 5.5 km to a controlled aerodrome or airfield, if your drone weighs more than 100g.
1 July 2019 saw CASA implement new rules requiring all drones to be registered, and all drone flyers to either have a remote pilot licence, or have completed a short online safety quiz. Both government entities, and people and businesses who hold an ACN or ARBN can apply for a remotely piloted aircraft operator's certificate which allows drone pilots to operate UAVs commercially, and in some cases fly outside of the standard drone safety rules.
The agricultural community believes that drones could be an important new innovation with the potential to support the modernisation of the farming industry. Drones would allow farmers to remotely check their produce, conserve water and even plant seeds. This is relevant given the fact that now more than ever, farmers are being required to produce more whilst spending less.
In 2018, the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations and the International Telecommunication Union published a paper titled E-Agriculture in Action: Drones for Agriculture, containing a range of case studies effectively outlining the high-level impact that drone technology has already had on the agricultural industry.
Whilst UAVs indeed seem to present a cost-effective replacement to traditional surveying methods such as traveling on-foot or using expensive crop-dusters, many farmers feel that the strict laws (especially those requiring UAVs to remain within eyesight) can seriously impede their progress.
Farms can often stretch on for many hectares, thus requiring UAVs to go beyond the eyesight of their operator in order to survey the land in its entirety. Currently, in order to fly beyond the pilot's visual line of sight, an application must be made to (and approved by) CASA.
Leaders in the agricultural industry are currently in negotiations with CASA to seek softening of the Regulations in order to give farmers more flexibility in their use of UAVs on their land.
As with the agricultural industry, drone technology holds the potential to change the face of medicine, with the new Wing Aviation service allowing for the delivery of basic products such as over-the-counter pain medication. Similarly, many hope to use UAVs to deliver life-saving medical needs.
Rwanda and Tanzania have already allowed US company Zipline to use UAVs to deliver medical supplies, with promising results. Since 2016, the company has made over 14,000 successful deliveries in Rwanda, and 8,000 in Tanzania. Whilst many sparsely populated parts of Australia would likely see significant benefits from the use of UAVs, with rules maintaining that drones only fly in certain areas (and within eyesight), during the day, it may be some time before such use of the technology is mirrored here in Australia.
In 2018, the Australian government helped to fund a trial by Swoop Aero, a Melbourne based company, to use UAVs to transport vaccines in Vanuatu. Although it was initially intended that following the program's success, these medical services would reach the Australian market in mid-2019, there has been limited progress.
Unsurprisingly, some companies are unwilling to wait for the Australian government. Matthew Sweeny, founder and CEO of drone delivery service Flirtey, was born in Australia but moved his company to America due to what he considered to be out of date and slow-to-change policies back home. Flirtey has been able to flourish in the States, becoming the first company to deliver medical supplies via UAV. Sweeny has publicly warned CASA that their unwillingness to change will leave them in the dark ages.
Despite some negative commentary, CASA has defended their policies, stating that the current precautions are necessary in order to mitigate potential danger while the technology is still in its infancy. Indeed, risks associated with sky overcrowding, system failures and/ or human error are still very real, and need to be managed closely. With this said, these rules may be subject to change as the Senate has begun an inquiry to investigate the impact of the Regulations on businesses in the rural community.
Balancing safety and innovation is undoubtedly a major challenge for policy makers, but an important one to get right, as at least in the context of drone technology, official decisions on regulation could affect the welfare and economy of Australians for generations to come.