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Drones (Remotely Piloted Aircraft)

This section of the Law Handbook focuses on the smaller sizes of drones that are likely to be used by people as a hobby. For those using drones for commercial purposes, see further the Civil Aviation Safety Regulations 1998 (Cth) and the Civil Aviation Authority's website, and seek further advice.

The section covers:

What is a drone (Remotely Piloted Aircraft (RPA))?

The Civil Aviation Safety Authority regulations refer to drones as Remotely Piloted Aircraft [Civil Aviation Safety Regulations 1998 (Cth)].

A drone is an unmanned aerial vehicle, remotely piloted aircraft, rocket powered unmanned aircraft, Quadcopter, or robot.

Remotely Piloted Aircraft can be flown by remote control or they can fly autonomously (independently) through software-controlled flight plans in their computer systems.

Types of Remotely Piloted Aircraft and Restrictions Based on Weight

What a person can and can not do with their Remotely Piloted Aircraft (RPA), and what type of licence, if any, they will need will be determined by the weight class of the RPA [Civil Aviation Safety Regulations 1998 (Cth)].

The weight categories are:

  • Micro: gross weight of 100 g or less;
  • Very small: gross weight of more than 100 g and less than 2 kg;
  • Small: gross weight of at least 2 kg and less than 25 kg;
  • Medium: gross weight of at least 25 kg and less than or equal to 150 kg (or, for airships, an envelope of 100 m3 or less);
  • Large: gross weight greater than 150 kg (or, for airships, more than a 100 m3 envelope).

See Volume 4, Dictionary Definitions, Civil Aviation Safety Regulations 1998 (Cth).

Some types of RPA can be operated without the need for a remote pilot licence and an operator’s certificate; they are referred to as excluded RPAoperations [reg 101.237].

All other RPA require either a remote pilot licence or an operators certificate or both [reg 101. 252].

Conditions for operating Remotely Piloted Aircraft (RPA)

Standard operating conditions for Remotely Piloted Aircraft (RPA)

There are standard operating conditions for Remotely Piloted Aircraft (RPA) and penalties for breaching them. Those conditions include:

  • Only fly one RPA at a time [reg 101.238(f) Civil Aviation Safety Regulations 1998 (Cth)];
  • Do not fly into cloud/fog without approval from air traffic control and training;
  • Only fly during the day [reg 101.095];
  • Keep an RPA within visual line-of sight [reg 101.073; 101.095];
  • Do not fly an RPA higher than 120 metres (400ft) above ground level (exceptions apply) [regulations 101.085; 101.070; 101.030; 101.250];
  • Keep an RPA at least 30 metres away from other people (exceptions apply)[ reg 101.245];
  • Keep an RPA at least 5.5km away from an aerodrome or helicopter landing site without approval [101.075; 101.080]. There are apps and software that can assist with this, see for example the Drone Complier Software website.
  • Do not fly a RPA over or near an area affecting public safety or where emergency operations are underway (without prior approval). This could include situations such as a car crash, police operations, fire and associated fire fighting efforts and search and rescue [reg 101.055];
  • Do not operate an RPA in a prohibited area or in a restricted area without the permission of, and without operating in accordance with, any conditions imposed by the authority controlling the area.[reg 101.065];
  • Do not fly an RPA autonomously; [reg 101.097]; The Civil Aviation Safety Authority (CASA) is still developing regulations for autonomous flight however currently approval has to be sought and is only granted on a case by case basis. Conditions to that approval may apply.
  • Do not fly an RPA over any populous areas [reg 101.025]; A populous area can include: beaches, parks and sporting ovals [see regulations 101.025; 101.280; 101.235]. There is an exception if the RPA is certified as airworthy [reg 101.280]. A populous area is: when the area has a sufficient density of population for some aspect of the operation, or some event that might happen during the operation (in particular, a fault in, or failure of, the aircraft or rocket) to pose an unreasonable risk to the life, safety or property of somebody who is in the area but is not connected with the operation [reg 101.025].

It is an offence to fly an RPA in controlled airspace without complying with the prescribed requirements [reg 101.072, 101.285].

Penalties apply if anything is dropped or discharged from an RPA that creates a hazard to another aircraft, a person or property [reg 101.090].

Permits to fly drones in National Parks

It is an offence to fly a drone or other remotely piloted aircraft in a South Australian National Park or Reserve without a permit [see National Parks and Wildlife (National Parks) Regulations 2016 reg 12 (3)].

Maximum penalty: $1000

Expiation fee: $75

National Parks and Wildlife (National Parks) Regulations 2016 reg 42(1).

It is a defence to this charge if :

(a) the defendant proves that he or she acted in response to an emergency; and

(b) the court finds that the action was reasonable in the circumstances.

See reg 42(2).

Permits can be obtained from the Department for Environment and Water, see the South Australian Department for Environment and Water website.

Conditions particular to type of Remotely Piloted Aircraft (RPA)

Some types of RPA can be operated without the need for a remote pilot licence and an operator’s certificate; they are referred to as ‘excluded RPA’ operations [reg 101.237]. All other RPA require either a remote pilot licence or an operators certificate or both [reg 101. 252 Civil Aviation Safety Regulations 1998 (Cth)].

Micro RPA

This is an excluded RPA. Neither a remote pilot licence nor an operators certificate are needed to fly this aircraft [reg 101.237 (2)] . A micro RPA is subject to all the general regulations regarding RPA operation including the Standard Operating Conditions [reg 101.238].

Very Small RPA

If this RPA is used for sport/ recreational purposes or in accordance with the Standard Operating Conditions [reg 101.238] then neither a remote pilot licence nor an operators certificate are needed to fly this aircraft [reg 101.237 (3)].

This RPA may be flown for commercial gain provided it is flown within the Standard Operating Conditions without the need for either a remote pilot’s licence or an operators certificate. Flying a very small RPA outside of the Standard Operating Conditions for commercial gain will require the operator to hold an operators certificate and the pilot to hold a remote pilots licence.

Small RPA

If this RPA is used for sport/ recreational purposes then neither a remote pilot licence nor an operators certificate are needed to fly this aircraft [reg 101.237 (5)].

Small RPA flown for sport / recreation purposes must comply with the provisions for model aircraft such as being able to see the RPA continuously [reg 101.385], not flying at night without complying with the procedures of an approved aviation administration organisation [reg 101.390], staying away from people and populous areas [reg 101.395]; and flying below 120 metres [ reg 101.400].

Neither a remote pilot licence nor an operators certificate are needed to fly a small RPA on your own land providing the some conditions are met[see further reg 101.237 (4)]. The Civil Aviation Safety Authority must be notified of the intention to conduct an RPA operation and the location.

Limited training and experience exceptions also apply to allowing use without licence or certificate [see further: reg. 101.237 (6)].

Medium RPA

If this RPA is used for sport/ recreational purposes then neither a remote pilot licence nor an operators certificate are needed to fly this aircraft [reg 101.237 (5)].

Medium RPA flown for sport / recreation purposes must comply with the provisions for model aircraft [see reg 101.G].

A remote pilot licence is needed but not an operators certificate to fly a medium RPA providing the following conditions for landholders, but certain conditions apply: [see reg 101.237 (7)].

Limited training and experience exceptions also apply to allowing use without licence or certificate [see further: reg 101.237 (6)].

Large RPA

A large RPA is not an excluded RPA.

To operate it legally you needed a remote pilot licence [reg 101.252]; an operators certificate [reg 101.270]; and a special certificate of airworthiness (restricted category), or an experimental certificate [reg 101.255].

The large RPA has to be maintained as a class B aircraft [reg 101.260,101.265] and is only able to be operated with approval of the Civil Aviation Safety Authority [reg 101.275].

Operating Remotely Piloted Aircraft (RPA) for Hire or Reward

A person operating a Very small Remotely Piloted Aircraft (RPA) for hire or reward:

  • Must give the Civil Aviation Safety Authority notice in writing at least five business days before commencement of the operation [reg 101.371,101.372 Civil Aviation Safety Regulations 1998 (Cth)];
  • Must give notice in writing to CASA of any changes in the event or the matter within 21 days business days of the change, event or matter occurring [reg 101.373]; and
  • Must operate within standard operating conditions [reg 101.238] if do not have a remote pilots licence or an operators certificate [reg 101.237 (3)(b)].

Small, medium and large RPA being flown for reward are not excluded operations and therefore need an appropriate remote pilots licence and/or operators certificate [reg 101.237].

Penalties for Unsafe Flying

Penalties for disregarding the Civil Aviation Safety Regulations 1998 (Cth) range from 10 points to 50 points. Each point is currently valued at $210 (at December 2018) resulting in fines of between $2100 to $10 500 for each breach of the regulations [s 4AA Crimes Act 1914 (Cth)].

Pilots and operators of Remotely Piloted Aircrafts should also be aware that the Civil Aviation Act 1988 (Cth), Aviation Transport Security Act 2004 (Cth) and the aviation security regulations also contain criminal offences for reckless flying or interfering with the safe conduct of air transport. Penalties include up to 2 years imprisonment.

Indoor Operation of a Remotely Piloted Aircraft

The following regulations make indoor Remotely Piloted Aircraft (RPA) flying difficult:

  • A person must keep their RPA at least 30 metres away from other people (exceptions apply) [see Civil Aviation Safety Regulations 1998 (Cth) reg 101.245];
  • A person must not fly their RPA over any populous areas [regulations 101.025; 101.280]; and
  • The RPA must not create a hazard to other people or property [reg 101.055].

How to report unsafe Remotely Piloted Aircraft flights to the Civil Aviation Safety Authority

To report unsafe Remotely Piloted Aircraft flights to the Civil Aviation Safety Authority, complete the on-line unsafe drone operations complaint form to notify CASA of the remotely piloted aircraft (RPA) operations that may have breached civil aviation safety regulations.

Be aware that safety breaches can only be investigated where there is sufficient evidence, such as photos or video recordings of the breach.

    Drones (Remotely Piloted Aircraft)  :  Last Revised: Thu Nov 3rd 2016
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