With the constant advancements in affordable drone technology, the ability for the people to purchase and operate drones is increasing. The majority of the general public has traditionally used drones for personal or hobby purposes. However, due to the increased desire for businesses such as real estate agencies, agricultural operations, mining operations, sporting clubs etc to use drone footage in their businesses, many drone owners and operators are looking to use drones commercially. In doing so it is important to be aware of the requirements and obligations on drone users as set down by the Civil Aviation Safety Authority (CASA) and particularly in relation to pilot certification.

Certification

The term that CASA gives to what most people know as drones is an unmanned aerial vehicle or UAV. Whether a person or company requires certification, and what level of certification they require, depends on the use of the UAV.

If a UAV pilot is purely flying the UAV for hobby purposes without commercial gain or reward then no certification is required to be obtained by that pilot. This uncertified operation does still require the user to comply with a number of restrictions relating to how high the UAV can be flown, in what type of airspace the UAV can be flown etc. It is also important to note that a commercial gain or reward is not limited to a direct payment for the services and can be broadly interpreted.

If a UAV pilot (or Controller) is carrying out flights for a commercial gain or reward, the controller will need to obtain certification in the form of a UAV Controller Certificate or a Remote Pilot Certificate.

A certified UAV Controller will then need to be employed by or contracted to the holder of a UAV Operator Certificate (UOC).

Depending on the level of certification, the certification process for a Controller is a course for a number of days and a theory exam, followed by an application to CASA for certification.

The UOC certification process is much more in depth, more costly and much more time intensive. As such, often the company operating a drone business will hold a UOC and will employ Controllers as employees or engage Controllers as contractors to carry out the work.

It is important to ensure that the correct certification is obtained before undergoing any UAV operation for commercial purposes.

New Certification Exemption

In March 2016 the Federal Government passed legislation amending the Civil Aviation safety Regulations, which came into effect on 29 September 2016. As part of this amendment legislation, it provides that UAVs with a weight of less than 2kgs have reduced regulatory requirements, including that these excluded UAVs are able to operate commercially without requirement for a UOC or Controller Certification. The Regulations do require that prior to the pilot/operator operating the excluded UAV for commercial purposes, they first register with CASA and notify them when the commercial operations will commence so that CASA can establish and maintain a database of these operators.

While this does seem like a significant exclusion, it is likely that for most commercial UAV operators, their UAVs will weigh more than 2kgs. However it does allow for hobbyist UAV operators to potentially enter the commercial drone market without the need for any certification. Whether the quality of footage obtained from these excluded UAVs is good enough to be competitive with larger and more stable UAVs will be another question.

Other CASA Requirements

CASA sets out a number of obligations and requirements on UAV Controllers and Operators, including (but not limited to):

  • Restrictions on operation of UAVs in controlled air space;
  • Restrictions on operation of UAVs over populous areas;
  • Maintenance of UAVs;
  • Training requirements; and
  • For particular operations, certain specific approvals are required.

For further detailed advice in relation to these obligations and requirements, please do not hesitate to contact us and we can discuss these in more detail.

Insurance

We note that while CASA does not strictly require the Operator or Controller of a UAV to hold insurance, CASA does strongly recommend that insurance is considered. This area of commercial operation does bring with it inherent risks and certainly it would be advisable that appropriate insurance policies are taken out. A number of the aviation insurance providers are becoming more and more aware of the requirements and risks associated with UAV operation and relevant products are certainly available.