On 24 March the Civil Aviation Safety Authority (CASA) registered amendments to the Civil Aviation Safety Regulations 1998 (the Regulations) which governs unmanned aircraft such as drones. These amendments will take effect on 29 September 2016.

Purpose of the amendments

Since 2007, the number of authorised remote piloted aircraft operators has increased from less than 25 to over 500. An industry which was formerly limited to military purposes has evolved into a buzzing commercial and recreational space, with drones now commonly used for such diverse purposes as aerial photography, infrastructure inspection and agricultural surveying. This expanding usage has prompted CASA to reconsider the regulatory framework it first devised in 2002, introducing amendments to reduce red tape and accommodate low risk beneficial use.

The purpose of the amendments is to differentiate between low and high risk operations, reduce the cost and requirements for those that are lower risk, and have more complex operational matters dealt with in a future Manual of Standards which will be developed in conjunction with industry. Whether an operation is lower risk will be determined by reference to the weight and operational use of the aircraft.

Specifically, the three main changes to the Regulations include:  

  1. Change in terminology

The Regulations' terminology will align with the International Civil Aviation Organisation. Changes include replacing the term ‘unmanned aerial vehicle’ (UAV) with ‘remotely piloted aircraft’ (RPA), and 'unmanned aircraft systems' (UAS) with 'remotely piloted aircraft system' (RPAS).   

  1. New classifications

New weight classifications have been introduced, namely:  

  • micro (<100g)
  • very small (< 2kg);
  • small (2-25kg);
  • medium (25-150kg); and
  • large (>150kg).  
  1. Reduced regulatory requirements for lower risk RPA operations

Currently, commercial operators of all RPAs must hold either an Unmanned Aerial Vehicle Operators Certificate (OUC) or Remote Pilot Certificate (RPC) (now called a Remote Pilot Licence (RPL)). Both these qualifications require the applicant to undergo rigorous and costly training programs, involving obtaining the Aircraft Radio Operators Certificate, passing theory and practical assessments, and participating in flight training. The cost of these training programs is usually between AU$2,500 - $3,000.

The amendments mean certain commercial operators can now operate without needing to obtain certification. CASA has classified what it considers to be lower risk RPA operations as 'Excluded RPAs', exempt from licensing requirements (see table below).

Commercial operators of Excluded RPAs (except micro RPAs) must still notify CASA that they intend to use the drone for hire or reward (ie. for any remuneration), with CASA planning to create a live database tracking these notifications.

Click here to view table

Penalties

The Regulations also incorporate 11 strict liability offences which attract a penalty of up to AU$9,000 (being 50 penalty points), meaning there are now 20 offences relating to drones, all of which are strict liability. These include:  

  • Operating an unmanned aircraft in controlled airspace (being airspace subject to air traffic control) or beyond the operators visual line of sight;
  • Not complying with the Manual of Standards (see below);
  • Launching or releasing an autonomous aircraft;
  • Operating a non-excluded RPA without certification;
  • Not notifying CASA of operating anything but a micro RPA; and
  • Not keeping records and providing information to CASA as required.
  • CASA still carries a heavy evidentiary burden in prosecuting on any of these grounds, so it is unclear how regularly these penalties will be imposed.   

Manual of Standards

CASA has also announced the publication of an accompanying Part 101 Manual of Standards, containing more details on requirements such as Remote Pilot Licences, flights in controlled airspace, and flights beyond visual line of sight of the pilot. The Manual will not be available to review in draft form until at least June/July 2016.

For further information on the changes, see the amendments, the explanatory statement, and the CASA media release.