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Australian government holding public consultation on safety regulation of drones

The Australian government is holding a public consultation on safety regulation of drones and a discussion paper has been issued by the Civil Aviation Safety Authority (CASA) for comment. There are five key issues being examined: drone registration; training and education of drone operators; geo-fencing; counter drone technology; and future approaches to drone aviation safety regulation.

Federal Minister for Infrastructure and Transport, Darren Chester, said that the Federal Government was keen to support growth and innovation of this fast-moving industry whilst maintaining a high safety standard.

“Given the wide interest in drones I am encouraging as many people as possible to have their say on the development of future safety regulations for drones,” Mr. Chester said.

Nearly 1000 people and organisations have already submitted feedback. The discussion paper, which can be accessed here, on drone safety regulation is open for comment until September 22.

Questions asked in the discussion paper

Should all RPA be registered? - Subject to certain exceptions, all aircraft in Australia are required to be registered and to display the registration number issued on the aircraft itself. The requirements do not apply to model aircraft and RPA with a gross weight of less than 150 kg. The introduction of any kind of registration and/or marking scheme would involve costs for owners and operators of covered RPA.

Should all RPA users be required to meet specified training, experience, knowledge and/or assessment requirements? - Commercial RPA operators and operators of large RPA (> 150 kg) are required to hold a RePL and/or a ReOC when operating RPA in Australia by successfully completing a specified training course and passing an examination. There are no plans to change that. The focus here is on those RPA users who are not currently required to undertake any training or study, or to successfully pass any examinations.

Should the introduction of geo-fencing be mandated? - Geo-fencing is a form of electronic containment/exclusion that uses GPS or other radio frequencies to create a virtual boundary in two or three dimensions around and between certain areas. Geo-fencing could be used to contain RPA within a fixed or dynamic area, to exclude them from designated areas and/or to prevent them from exceeding certain altitudes. The paper also considers what should happen if a RPA encounters a geo-fencing boundary, whether it should return (safely) to the operator, or fall to the ground or be diverted or directed to some other location.

What should be done about ‘counter-drone’ technology? - RPAs can interfere with the enjoyment of one’s property or the conduct of lawful activities on private premises. RPAs have also been linked to linked to the delivery of contraband to prisons and other controlled premises, interfering with fire-fighting operations and encroaching unsafely (and unlawfully) on aerodrome take-off and departure paths. In response, technologies are being developed, and some basic, conventional methods are being used, to thwart the use of RPA. Here, a balance would need to be struck between responsible development and controlled deployment of effective counter-drone technologies and potentially dangerous and unlawful activity in the process of disabling or destroying a drone.

Finally, the paper asks "Are we doing enough of the right things?". It notes that any workable regulatory approach to the rational management of RPA in the aviation system must be flexible, responsive and, in so far as possible, predictive of constantly evolving safety-related considerations.

Developments in Australian drone regulation till date

Australia was one of the first countries in the world to introduce legislation governing the operation of remotely piloted aircraft (RPA), or drones through the introduction of Part 101 of the Civil Aviation Safety Regulations 1998 (CASR) in 2002. Since then, there has been significant rise in use of RPAs, driven by technological advances and declining costs fuelling commercial and recreational consumer demand.

As of July 24, 2017 there were 5,870 remotely piloted aircraft licence (RePL) holders and 1,106 remotely piloted aircraft operator’s certificate (ReOC) holders in Australia. The vast majority of RPA owners and operators are recreational users who require neither a RePL nor a ReOC. It is estimated that there are at least 50,000 drones being operated in Australia today, mostly for sport and recreational purposes.

The discussion paper highlights the challenges faced globally by aviation safety regulators, how to maintain high levels of safety without unnecessarily impeding progress or unduly constraining commercial opportunities to use a technology capable of a multitude of beneficial humanitarian, economic and recreational applications.

Responding to these challenges, CASA introduced amendments to the regulations that took effect in September 2016. While reducing the regulatory burden on some commercial uses of RPA, the regulations continue to require all drone operators to comply with the basic safety requirements set out in the Civil Aviation Act 1988 and the regulations. The Notice of Final Rule Making for these amendments is expected to be released shortly.

In May 2017, CASA released a free drone app called ‘Can I fly there?’, targeting recreational and very small commercial RPA users. The app shows no-fly zones and fly with caution zones for drones operated in the under two kilogram commercial category. By 24 July 2017, this app had over 72,000 downloads of/unique visitors to its mobile device and web browser versions.

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