Civilian Drones Have Arrived
In recent years the world has witnessed the rise of civilian drones. These flying machines have redefined what was previously thought achievable from an aerial platform. The increased ease and decreased risk of getting an aerial perspective has injected a new energy into the aerial photography and cinematography industry.
In the last few years drones have become a common story in the media. This increased exposure has helped make aerial photos and video a necessity for modern storytelling, marketing and planning. Although drones have changed what aerial shots are able to be captured, it is still a tool with limitations. And for every limitation there is a regulation.
Regulations of Drones in Australia
Australian regulators have been ahead of the global pack in implementing laws that protect the public and allow commercial drone operations. To ensure the safety of the public, many laws have been implemented that limit the flight techniques and technologies available to the commercial operator. These laws however, are not followed by a large portion of the global aerial photographers. This results in some misconceptions on what a commercial drone operator in Australia is legally capable of.
Below is an infographic containing the main rules that must be followed in Australia by all commercial and non commercial operators.
These laws are designed to minimise the risk any damage to person, property or other aircraft. They also recognise the fact that the majority of consumer drones do not have redundant systems and therefore the pilot must always be be able to manually take control of the remote aircraft and safely land it.
There are three main restrictions that we must work within to get your dream shot:
-Flight ceiling ~ 120 metres
-No FPV (first person view) flight
-No ops over populous areas
Drones in Australia are legally limited to a maximum height above the ground of ~120 meters (400ft). This restrictions serves two purposes – one, putting at a minimum, a 100ft buffer between the drone and low flying helicopters (which cannot fly below 500ft above the ground except on approach to landing and for specialised air work). And two, when a drone is higher than 400 feet, (even a large heavy lift) it will become very small in the sky and it may be difficult to correctly orientate without the use of FPV, which is still illegal for commercial operations in Australia.
No FPV – Fly within line of sight
Consumer drones can be found ready to fly from the store with great FPV systems designed for hobby use (even though all FPV flight further than line of sight is still illegal in Australia). The biggest problem regulators have with these systems in a commercial setting is their lack of redundancy. Military drones have several systems to navigate, power the motors and to communicate with the pilot. These allow for beyond line of sight ops with a relatively small risk of a critical system failure.
Most small consumer drones do not have the lift capacity for redundant systems, they rely on the pilot as the back up. When the drone is out of the pilots line of sight, (or so far away he/she cannot orientate it) the pilot is no longer in a position to ‘save’ the drone if anything goes wrong. This increase in risk is not acceptable to the Australian regulators or commercial operators, as it not only increases risk to the public but also to the future growth of the industry.
No operations over populous areas
This regulation does not require a lot of explanation. Flying over people and property is risky. Flying over lots of people and property is riskier. An added risk of flying around populous areas, (even when launching from a secured area legally) is the huge amount of RF (Radio Frequency) pollution from wifi and mobile towers etc. This greatly increases the chance of drone malfunctions and systems failure. Being able to control take control of the drone manually at all times throughout the entire flight is absolutely paramount!
Working within the regulations
All commercial ‘air work’ in Australia must be conducted under an Unmanned Operators Certificate. Any flights leading to any economic gain can be considered air work.
For example, if you want to help your friend sell their house and take an aerial photo for free, even though you did not receive any money for the shot, it is considered ‘air work’ because it lead to economic gain.
For a fully licensed operator (UOC, controllers certificate and insurance) working within the regulations to achieve desired shots is very doable. The drone is just a platform for lifting a stabilised camera, so when the desired shot cannot be achieved legally with the use of a drone, other aerial platforms are utilised.
Helicopters work beautifully as a complementary platform to the drone. They can legally operate 500 feet above the ground in rural areas (almost the flight ceiling of the drone). Helicopters can also operate at much higher altitudes than the drone, lift larger camera systems and shoot longer shots. The subject of the capabilities of helicopters is a large one and definitely deserves its own post.
Australian regulatory bodies have moved quickly to make this emerging industry as safe as possible. With the exponential growth in this technology there is little doubt that the regulations will have to adapt in order to stay relevant and enforceable. The largest obstacle that is faced by regulators is keeping regulations from becoming so overbearing that they ‘punish’ legal operators and incentivise operating illegally.
For now CASA is focused on keeping with the mission of ‘safe skies for all’ and that is a motto everyone can get behind.