In a recent article, we outlined the issues to consider when using drones for recreational use, highlighting the case of a Victorian man who used a drone to collect a Bunnings sausage whilst reclining in his backyard pool, risking a $9,000 fine.

In this article we look at the commercial uses of drones and the issues to consider when using drones in the suburbs to deliver pizza, monitor agricultural livestock and crops, or in remote mine sites to survey power lines and pipelines.

What initially began as a novelty toy has slowly turned into a product with serious commercial usage. The concept of having an eye in the sky is no longer just ‘pie in the sky’, as more and more companies take advantage of the high resolution graphics, quality audio and at times high thermal imaging stemming from advances in drone technology.

In addition, the Civil Aviation Safety Authority (CASA) recently stripped away the red tape that had previously imposed higher costs and legal burdens for low risk drones (commonly referred to as remotely piloted aircraft). As from 29 September 2016, commercial operators of very small drones (weighing between 100 grams and 2 kilos) do not require an operator’s certificate or a remote pilot licence.

In a nutshell, the standard drone operating conditions are that the drone:

  • must be at least 30 metres away from people (or no closer than 15m with the person’s consent);
  • must be at least 5.5km away from a controlled airdrome;
  • must not fly higher than 120 metres (400 feet);
  • must fly only during the day, and not during night, or into a cloud or bad weather (where visibility cannot be maintained);
  • must fly within the visual line of site (unless prior approval has been granted);
  • must not be flown over populated areas (ie beaches, parks and sports ovals);
  • must not be flown near an area affecting public safety or where emergency operations are under way (ie car crash, police operations, bush fires etc);
  • only one drone may be operated at a time; and
  • must not drop or discharge any objects in any manner that may create a hazard for people, property, or other aircraft.

In respect of the agricultural industry, amendments have been made to the Agricultural Chemicals Distribution Control Act 1966, which has the effect of allowing drones to be used to spray crops in more difficult areas without the need for a remote pilot licence from CASA.

The effect of such changes has seen drones now used for a wide variety of purposes, such as :

Environmental - analysing vegetation coverage; detailed terrain models and photo mosaics of ground conditions, and erosion monitoring. The Victorian government has been monitoring Koala populations with drones, and this summer used the same technology to provide real time reporting on firefighting operations. Scientists have been using drones to record and map the health of coral populations on the Great Barrier Reef as well as mangrove forests along Darwin’s harbour. Polar oceanographers have been using drones to monitor sea ice changes in the Artic and Antarctica, and monitor populations of artic sea birds.

Mining - surveying power lines and gas pipe lines, where previously helicopters and four wheel drive vehicles were required in remote areas. Drones are also being used to check on ore stockpiles and perform maintenance inspections around plants, as well as geotechnical issues that may have dangers such as dangerous or unstable pit walls.

Agricultural - checking on stock in remote areas, checking fence lines or water troughs, monitoring bushfires and as mentioned above, spraying for crops. Spectral imaging is being used to check crop health to assist with determining fertiliser and irrigation application rates. Near infrared can reveal plants under stress days before those stress signs would normally be visible. Breeding cows and ewes can be checked without the stress and interference associated with four wheel drives and motorbikes.

Commercial – in late 2016, Dominoes successfully delivered its first pizza via a drone in New Zealand as part of its 10 minute target delivery programme. Australia Post has been trialling drones for parcel delivery in rural areas. In Nevada, drones have received approval to deliver bottled water, emergency food and first aid kits to people isolated in emergency situations. A trial for the delivery of medical supplies to remote NSW communities was in place for late 2016.

In deciding to use drones you must ask yourself one of two questions:

  • Will I get the drone myself and make sure that I comply with all of the CASA regulations; or
  • Am I going to use a commercial drone operator (of which there are now many available). In which case, as when entering into any contract you will need to carefully consider the terms and conditions that you agree to. Paying particular attention to what data, images or information you are to receive and for how much.

Careful consideration must be given with respect to who owns that data, and ensuring that any of your trade secrets or intellectual property is properly protected so that commercially sensitive material you may have on your land is not leaked to your competitors. Importantly, you may need to consider liability for any accidents or negligence – imagine if a drone flew into a powerline causing a blackout to hundreds of businesses, or injured a pedestrian and the operator didn’t hold sufficient insurance.

When considering using drones for commercial gain and whether to use them yourself, or outsource to specialist contractors, be sure to receive the right legal advice before hand. For more information or discussion, please contact HopgoodGanim Lawyers.