Permission to fly

On 25 September 2016 amendments were made to the Civil Aviation Safety Regulations part 101 in response to Australia’s rapidly growing Remotely Piloted Aircraft (RPA) or ‘drone’ industry. The amendments consolidate all the rules applicable to RPAs into one body of legislation. The changes to the rules governing the use of commercial RPAs will make it easier for individuals to use them on private properties.

All drones great and small

RPAs come in a huge array of shapes and sizes, from large fixedwing craft that look and behave much like aeroplanes right down to tiny multi-rotor helicopters weighing less than a kilogram. They are being used increasingly across a range of Australian industries, from journalism, cinematography, policing and emergency services, to agriculture, mining and scientific research. The term ‘drone’ is falling out of favour with industry groups as a result of perceived negative connotations arising from an association with military programs of ‘targeted assassinations’.

The new laws have relaxed licensing and certification requirements for private landholders who conduct certain commercial like activities on their own land. Those activities include agricultural operations.

The capacity of RPAs to access remote areas and provide large scale monitoring offers incredible opportunities in the mining and agricultural sectors The capacity of RPAs to access remote areas and provide large scale monitoring offers incredible opportunities in the mining and agricultural sectors.

How RPAs can benefit the mining industry

Volatile at the best of times, a steep fall in commodity prices over the last five years has hurt mining industry profits. Many mining companies are looking at technology to cut costs and improve safety. Increasingly RPAs are being used on sites for arduous or dangerous tasks which had previously been done by people. They can be used to check stockpile inventories and monitor for geo-technical issues within mines, especially around pit walls where putting people in the situation is either physically impossible, expensive, or perhaps even dangerous.

Further uses range from environmental scanning/monitoring; fire monitoring; subsidence monitoring; infrastructure assessments; general aerial photography; blast monitoring— because the UAVs can fly through a blast cloud; and also spare parts transportation out to LNG rigs out off the North West Shelf.

What about agriculture?

The new laws have relaxed licensing and certification requirements for private landholders who conduct certain commercial like activities on their own land. Those activities include agricultural operations.

The many beneficial commercial uses of RPAs for farmers include detecting crop stress, disease surveillance, land use, weed detection, property surveying and mapping. RPAs may also assist in certifying that certain areas are free of various pests, which is crucial for the agricultural industry’s ongoing access to overseas markets.

Pastoralists can see which paddocks have sufficient grass feed to cater for a certain size of herd. Lot feeding operations use RPAs to assess whether cattle are being over or under fed or whether bunks need cleaning or replenishing with feed. They can be used for stock taking in both feedlots and open paddocks. They have also been used to move stock along a fence line or through a gateway.

Regulations – clearer skies ahead

Commercial users of drones that weigh less than two kilograms will no longer need to obtain a number of regulatory approvals, such as an operator’s certificate and remote pilot licence. While this does mean a reduction in time and money spent on regulatory procedures, operators will still be under an obligation to notify CASA prior to the operation.

Landowners will not require certification however they will need to comply with a number of requirements including:

  • The weight and type of the RPA in use.
  • Ensuring operation of the RPA takes place only over the landholder/leaseholder’s land.
  • Compliance with the standard operating procedures set by CASA.
  • The landholder / leaseholder must be the owner of the RPA.

Taking flight – what next?

These amendments reduce the cost and legal requirements for lower-risk (RPA) operations. More complex operational matters will be dealt with in a new manual of standards to be developed with industry, providing greater flexibility and responsiveness in this rapidly evolving area.