Australian Drone Rules as at August 2017

Late last year, it became legally easier to fly drones in Australia, with the relaxation of Civil Aviation Safety Authority rules about “remotely piloted aircraft”, or RPAs. Here’s what you need to know — including what it means for your privacy.

You would have noticed that you are seeing more and more drones lately.

Well, I hate to be the one to tell you this, but the drone industry has only just gotten started. In the next few years you will start to see drone deliveries, traffic drones, security drones… This is only the beginning. Recreational aircraft such as quadcopters, fixed-wing and mini drones are getting ever cheaper and easier to buy. They are fast becoming a must-have item for people who want to document their activities for social media, or just explore their neighbourhood. With the relaxation of Australian drone rules, you can expect to see a lot more of this moving forward.

This change is partly due to the significant challenges of regulating something that is so easy to buy and even easier to use. As a result, you can expect to see many more drones in the sky during 2017, and probably double that number in 2018. Of course, given that they routinely have high-resolution cameras on board, you can expect a lot more drones to be seeing you.

What do the new relaxed CASA drone rules involve?

The new, relaxed regulations – first proposed in April, 2017 – will exempt drones under certain weight limits from licensing and notice requirements.

In particular, drones weighing less than 2kg will not need to be licensed at all. Owners only need to notify CASA of their use if it is for commercial purposes. Similarly, drones under 25kg can also be flown without licensing or notification requirements if they are used for “sport and recreation”, or if they are flown on private land and used for private aerial photography, spotting, communications or agricultural operations.

Operators of drones weighing more than 100g will still have to steer clear of certain areas, under the so-called “standard RPA operating conditions”. This means no flying in controlled or prohibited airspace; above 400ft (122m); at night; in swarms; over emergency operations without approval; within 30m of another person; out of the pilot’s direct line of sight; or in an area of “sufficient density of population for some aspect of the operation … to pose an unreasonable risk to the life, safety or property”.

On the other hand, commercial drone companies like PerthDrone.com.au(,) who perform various aerial asset inspection work, operate drones that weigh around 3 to 4 kg and are deemed

What about privacy?

What is notably absent from the standard RPA operating conditions is any requirement to avoid flying over private property. Nor do the rules require the operator to respect the privacy of others or refrain from filming them, either on their own land or in public.

That may concern some people, because in Australia there is little legal recourse if someone films you in your backyard, in a secluded area or even through your window at home.

The loosening of the rules thus has obvious implications for privacy. Every new drone platform is basically an eye in the sky, capable of recording high-resolution images and video.

In 2014, a Commonwealth House of Representatives standing committee warned:

Remotely piloted aircraft (RPAs) have the potential to pose a serious threat to Australians’ privacy. They can intrude on a person’s or a business’s private activities either intentionally, as in the case of deliberate surveillance, or inadvertently.

The committee recommended a raft of urgent legislative changes to counter the wide-scale adoption of “privacy-invasive technologies” like drones. But the recommendations were not taken up by the government, and nor was the committee’s echoing of the recommendation by the Australian Law Reform Commission that Australia develop a “tort of privacy” to guard people against intrusion by drones.

Such a measure would allow individuals to sue for damages if another person grossly violates their private life or affairs. While this privacy law remedy is available in other countries, Australian courts have rejected it.

This is largely a result of a 1936 court case brought against a man called George Taylor, who built a viewing platform on land next to Victoria Park Racetrack so he could call the races over the radio. The racecourse sued him for a breach of privacy but the High Court of Australia rejected the claim, not wanting to set a precedent by which neighbours could sue one another for simply peering over a fence. Chief Justice Latham’s reasoning was simple:

Any person is entitled to look over the plaintiff’s fences and to see what goes on in the plaintiff’s land. If the plaintiff desires to prevent this, the plaintiff can erect a higher fence.

This reasoning has prevailed in Australia ever since. No longer can you just build a higher fence, unless of course you want to box in your entire property from any aerial observation.

This is why the legal justification has been criticised by scholars, lawyers and privacy advocates, as well as by parliamentary bodies specifically in response to “privacy-invasive technologies” like drones.

Given that nothing has been done about it – even while agencies like CASA make it ever easier to record invasive footage – it is time to accept that, in Australia at least, Drones can legally fly over your property as there are no current drone privacy laws that exist.

For your information, the only rules a drone pilot has to obey, are the following:

Drone Standard Operating Conditions:

  • Pilot must only fly during the day (not after sunset) and keep drone within visual line-of sight (VLOS) – close enough to see, maintain orientation and achieve accurate flight and tracking.
  • Pilot must not fly drone higher than 120 metres (400ft) at ground level of ground immediately below drone.
  • Pilot must keep drone at least 30 metres away from other people – i.e. any person not working with the drone pilot.
  • Pilot must keep drone away from prohibited/restricted areas – i.e. airports, helicopter pads.
  • Pilot must not fly drone over any area where, in the event of a loss of control or failure, the drone will create an unreasonable hazard to the safety of people and property on the ground (populous area).
  • Pilot must keep drone at least 5.5km away from controlled aerodromes – one with an operating control tower.
  • Pilot must not fly drone over or near an area affecting public safety or where emergency operations are underway (without prior approval).
    • This could include situations such as a traffic accident, police operations, a fire and associated firefighting efforts, and search and rescue.
  • Pilot can only fly one Drone at a time.