Earlier this year, we reported on the popularity and related restrictions imposed on the ‘selfie stick’; the hand-held gadget used to take photographs from a distance of up to two metres away from the subject. In the same category of remotely-controlled digital devices that allow photo-capturing ‘at a distance’, is the drone. The availability of drones to recreational users has seemingly been met with enthusiasm by the public all over Australia, the US and in other countries with access to advanced technology.   However, increasing concerns over the safe use of drones by amateurs are reflected in increasing scrutiny by authorities, and banning by public venues.

Up until now, the recreational use of drones has been restricted by safety guidelines established by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) in the US. These are published on the ‘Know Before You Fly’ website, and include that Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) must be flown no higher than 400 feet, avoid other aircraft, and be used only by competent operators. Organisations intending to use images captured by drones for business purposes – including government agencies – must apply to the FFA for permission. This provides a measure of control in regulating data collection through surveillance.

As reported in The Washington Post, the FAA has acknowledged that in spite of current regulations for the operation of UAVs, they have been unable to ensure the safe control of the national airspace for all aircraft users. Following from this admission, the US airspace regulator announced that it will assign a task force to establish control measures for recreational drone operators, with a view to having those rules in place by December of this year. Such measures are likely to include the compulsory registration of drone operators and purchasers across America, provisions for current owners, and the introduction of penalties associated with breaching safety regulations or failing to register.

As reported by Australian law firm Corrs, Australia has less restrictive laws than the US in relation to the flying of drones. The Civil Aviation Safety Authority (CASA) is currently reviewing and modernising the regulation of drones, and expects this to be released next year. They report that there is speculation that Australian regulators will introduce more stringent regulations for safety and privacy purposes.

Currently under the Civil Aviation Safety Regulations 1998, drones (weighing more than 100g and less than 100kg) cannot generally be flown:

  • higher than 400 feet;
  • within 10m horizontally and 30 feet vertically of a person (although there are exceptions to this prohibition for those involved in operating the UAV and others standing behind the UAV on take off);
  • over a large group of people at a height from which, if any of its components fail, it would not be able to clear the area;
  • over or near prohibited or restricted areas (such as an aerodromes or restricted military areas);
  • in conditions other than Visual Meteorological Conditions (i.e. bad weather);
  • in or into a cloud; or
  • at night.

It may be possible to use a drone outside some of the above restrictions:

  • with the approval of CASA or another relevant authority (such as air traffic control); or
  • if the UAV is being operated within the sight of the UAV pilot.

It is illegal to fly drones in a manner which is hazardous to property, a person or another aircraft; with a maximum penalty of up to AUD$8,500 possible.

Dropping off parcels or other items is however legal as long as nothing is discharged from a UAV in a way that creates a hazard to another aircraft, person or property.

In addition, companies that use UAVs must obtain an operator’s certificate from CASA, and any individual that flies a UAV for commercial gain must have a controller’s certificate.

As the popularity of drones in outdoor spaces has exploded, their use by event organisers and trade operators in indoor arenas has also increased, with several examples being raised by clients of Reliance Risk in Arenas. Needless to say, the desired ‘wow factor’ needs to be balanced against safety concerns for occupants below, with a very low margin for error, should something go wrong.  As a result many arenas are now banning their use indoors.