The world’s first commercial drone delivery service has taken flight this month in Australia’s capital with the Civil Aviation Safety Authority (CASA) approving the drone delivery plans of Wing Aviation, a part of Google’s parent company Alphabet, following an 18-month trial. In coming weeks Wing Aviation’s drones will take to the skies of Canberra delivering items such as food, chemist goods and even golf equipment to 100 eligible homes in select suburbs, before expanding to further areas. Wing Aviation expects that the drone delivery service could deliver over 25 percent of food delivery orders and around 4 to 6 percent of all purchases in the ACT by 2030.
CASA’s approval has been followed by the USA’s Federal Aviation Administration’s (FAA) recent approval of the first licence to operate a commercial drone delivery system. Finland and other countries are also piloting drone delivery services and will likely follow Australia and the USA’s footsteps.
While this will be the first commercial delivery service, drone use has grown rapidly and expansively across multiple industries, from enthusiasts and hobby users to commercial uses in assessing insurance claims and surveying construction sites. However, the potential of this new era of drone use highlights a lagging regulatory framework in need of reform. While CASA regulates the licensing and security of drone usage, it does not have jurisdiction over other areas, such as noise impacts and privacy issues.
During the trial, concerns were raised about the effect that the drone delivery service would have on the quality of life of impacted communities. Wing Aviation responded to this criticism by developing a significantly quieter drone with a lower pitch to better blend in with background noise. CASA also placed several conditions on its approval, such as limiting operating hours to daytime and maintaining minimum distances from people on the ground. However, there is currently no agency that has remit to handle noise issues arising from drone use if the quieter drone still causes noise complaints. It is unclear how this would be regulated in the future.
Privacy is a concern that is commonly raised in the context of drone usage. On its website, CASA directs individuals who have privacy concerns to the Office of the Australian Information Commissioner (OAIC). It is unclear how and when the OAIC will react to the recent developments in drone use.
It is also uncertain how existing causes of action will assist those wronged by drone use. State and Territory Acts regulating surveillance are unclear on whether drones are included. The NSW Surveillance Devices Act 2007 includes provisions prohibiting individuals from recording or monitoring an individual’s activities using cameras, surveillance or tracking devices, but does not specifically reference drones. Common law tortious actions of trespass and nuisance are untested in circumstances where individuals feel drones have invaded their privacy.
Attempts have been made by local councils to fill the regulatory gaps as they widen. Following Federal and State inaction, Leichhardt Council attempted to respond by drafting local laws in 2015 banning the use of drones in parks and public spaces (which were not implemented due to council amalgamations). However, local councils only have jurisdiction over the land and not the airspace, which is CASA’s remit. Without a comprehensive approach the regulations falter, especially if neighbouring councils have conflicting regulations.
The Wing Aviation approval highlights the question of whether regulation can keep up with the commercial and technological developments driving change in this space. The multitude of privacy, surveillance and noise issues which arise in relation to drone technology remain relatively unaddressed. As drones impact many cross sections of industries and communities, the regulatory responses must also be wide and comprehensive.