After an 18 month period of consultation with operators, regulators and business, the long awaited Australian Senate Inquiry report into the current and future regulatory framework for remotely piloted aircraft (drones) in Australia was released on 31 July 2018.

The report recommendations are likely to lead to a suite of significant amendments to Australia's current drones regulations over the coming months affecting commercial and recreational users.

Key recommendations

Among the 10 recommendations made by the Senate committee, key points were:

  • the immediate reform of the current regulations (Part 101 of the Civil Aviation Safety Regulations 1998) which commenced in September 2016 and which had the effect of (controversially) relaxing the rules for drones weighing less than 2kg, a position that the Senate committee was critical of;

  • introduction of a mandatory registration regime for all drones weighing more than 250 grams, together with a tiered education / training program;

  • development of drones-specific airworthiness standards, including mandated 'fail-safe' functions; and

  • creation of a nation-wide enforcement regime, including powers to issue on-the-spot-fines and report infringements, as part of a coordinated 'whole government policy' for drones in Australia to ensure the raft of issues raised by this rapidly growing industry are appropriately addressed.

Backdrop to the Senate Inquiry recommendations

When Australia's new drones regulations commenced in September 2016, we posed the question – how long would they last? Through those new regulations, Australia's regulator, the Civil Aviation Safety Authority (CASA), had introduced a risk-based framework for commercial drones operations, the aim being to reduce the 'red tape' for operators of drones under 2kg that are considered to be "lower risk" and thereby promote the local industry.

The Senate committee was critical of CASA's approach. It found that even small drones are capable of causing significant damage to aircraft, people or property, and present a safety risk that needs to be protected against. The position recommended by the Senate committee represents a clear shift and would bring Australia's regulations closer into line with those in the UK and the US, but potentially with even more stringent requirements for operators.

So, less than two years after Australia's current drones regulations commenced, we will now enter a period of uncertainty while the industry waits for a formal response from CASA to the report findings and a likely proposal for a reformed set of regulations. What is certain is that further change is coming in Australia in the short term. One suspects this will be just another step in a continual period of review and change over coming years as this era-defining technology continues to evolve.