UAV Regulations in Australia
Australia has been at the forefront of progressive UAV regulations for the past decade. It was the first in the world to promulgate an operational body of legislations for unmanned aircraft in 2002, and more recently announced intentions to introduce refined guidelines pending consultation with industry. These changes will move to more accurately align the requirements and controls applied to UAVs with the safety risk that each particular aircraft and designated activity presents. It is a move that is likely to broaden the opportunities for the commercial application of UAVs in Australia and promote innovation in the industry. In the lead up to these changes this article outlines the current legislation for UAV operators and introduces the guidelines currently proposed for consideration.
The operation of UAVs in Australia are governed by the Civil Aviation Safety Authority (CASA) along with CASA-approved associations. Current regulations fall under the umbrella of the “CASR Part 101 – Unmanned aircraft and rocket operations”. The rules that apply to any UAV operator under this legislation are centered around one all important distinction: whether the aircraft in question is defined as a “model aircraft” or an “unmanned aircraft”.
Model aircraft as defined by CASA are those that are “flown for sport and recreation, and more recently for education.” These aircraft are further qualified as being illegal to fly for commercial “hire and reward”. There are no requirements for formal piloting qualifications to operate these vehicles, but it is stipulated they should only be operated with visual line-of-site in day visual meteorological conditions (VMC).
In contrast, unmanned aircraft are defined as those that are “flown for air work, including commercial operations, in activities such as aerial photography, surveying, and law enforcement”. To pilot unmanned aircraft an operator is required to possess a UAV controller’s certification and an operator’s certificate to fly. This means that an unmanned aircraft pilot will need to have general aviation knowledge in line with a private pilots license and also posses skills specific to unmanned aircraft. These qualifications permit a pilot to perform any activity approved for operations over unpopulated areas, up to a flying height of 400ft AGL (above ground level). This, however, does not permit the pilot to fly in controlled airspace without prior CASA approval and coordination with Airservices Australia.
As it presently stands, the distinction between a model aircraft and an unmanned aircraft appears less about the capabilities of the platform and more to do with the intent with which it is operated. It is conceivable that under current legislation a single platform can be flown for two different purposes and consequently fall under either category of model or unmanned, rendering the real distinction a question of commerical use vs recreational use. Having all entrepreneurial applications falling under a single umbrella of commerical regulation may appear broad brush and onerous when consideration is afforded to the diversity of aircraft sizes and capabilities amongst the range of UAVs available today.
In light of this, CASA recently announced their intent to explore the re-categorisation of all commerical unmanned vehicles on a weight based system. It is currently considering four weight classes with the smallest under proposal being defined by an aircraft weight of less than 2kg (Class A). This category would be subject to significantly less rigorous operating requirements than those currently enforced under the CASR Part 101. The remaining categories being proposed will be defined by a weight range of 2-7kg (Class B), 7-20kg (Class C), and an over 20kg (Class D). The stringency of the controls applied will look to increase in line with the weight and capability of each aircraft, seeing the larger classes being subject to risk assessments and safety cases. Aircrafts falling within the biggest class would include platforms like the Insitu Scan Eagle which is capable of flying at 5000m for a flight duration of approximately 20 hours.
These new regulation do not appear to be introduced anytime before the federal election this year. Rather it is likely that these guidelines will be amended gradually through an evolutionary process in consultation with industry and the community. Whilst it is encouraging to see legislation that is set to foster the growth of this emerging technology in the civilian market place, it is essential for the long term future of the industry that safety remains paramount. Nonetheless, CASA’s new proposals indicate the dawn of an exciting new era for unmanned aircraft technology.