Changes to the legislation governing the use of remotely piloted aircraft in Australia07 April 2016
On 29 March 2016, the Civil Aviation Legislation Amendment (Part 101) Regulation 2016 (Cth) was registered. The Regulation introduces a number of important changes to the law governing the use of what will now be referred to as "remotely piloted aircraft" or RPAs. This change in terminology from "unmanned aerial vehicle" or UAV brings Australia into line with the terminology used by the International Civil Aviation Organisation.
The regulatory changes will take effect from 29 September 2016. The changes aim to ease the burden of regulatory compliance for RPA owners and operators, while maintaining Australia's aviation safety standards to protect those sharing the skies with these aircraft and those on the ground below.
The key changes include:
Categorisation of RPAs
RPA will be categorised according to gross weight: large (> 150 kg), medium (25 kg-149.999 kg), small (2 kg-24.999 kg), very small (0.101 kg-1.999 kg) or micro (< 0.1 kg).
Easing of regulatory requirements for low risk operations
There are reduced regulatory requirements for RPAs that fall within the definition of "excluded RPA"  , including not requiring an unmanned aircraft operator's certificate (UOC) and a remote pilot licence (RePL).
A micro RPA is automatically defined to be an excluded RPA. A very small, small or medium RPA can be classified as an excluded RPA depending on whether it is being operated for the purpose of sport or recreation, or if it is being operated:
- by or on behalf of its owner
- over land owned or occupied by its owner
- in "standard RPA operating conditions", and
- for one or more specified purposes, including aerial spotting, aerial photography, agricultural operations and the carriage of cargo, provided no remuneration is received by its operator or owner, the owner or occupier of the land or any person on whose behalf the activity is being conducted.
The standard RPA operating conditions include the RPA:
- being operated within the visual line of sight of its operator
- being operated at or below 400 feet above ground level by day
- not being operated within 30 metres of a person who is not directly associated with its operation, and
- not being operated in certain prohibited and restricted areas, such as controlled aerodromes and an area in which a fire, police or other emergency operation is being conducted without the approval of the person in charge of that operation.
It is expected that these changes will particularly benefit those using RPAs for aerial photography and private owners of large parcels of farming land, who will now be permitted to carry out RPA operations themselves on their own land using anything up to a medium RPA without a UOC or RePL.
Manual of Standards
One of the key changes introduced allows CASA to issue a Manual of Standards for RPAs under Part 101 of the Civil Aviation Safety Regulations 1998 (Cth).
This will allow detailed operational matters to be dealt with in the Manual as and when they arise in a flexible manner, for example the Manual may specify the requirements for an RPA to be operated in certain prescribed areas. This will further assist in the regulation of developments in this rapidly growing industry—CASA's March 2016 Briefing Newsletter estimated that Australia's unmanned aviation sector will have grown between 200% and 500% from its current level by 2020.
A number of new strict liability offences have been introduced, including conducting non-excluded RPA operations without an UOC. The penalty for these offences is capped at 50 penalty units, which currently equates to $9,000.
Issues for operators, their insurers and the public
RPA operators will no doubt rejoice in the relaxing of the regulatory burdens but should take care to fully familiarise themselves with the changes before they come into effect, to ensure they do not unwittingly breach the regulations. Operators should also ensure they have adequate insurance in place, even when undertaking excluded operations.
The relaxing of the regulatory requirements will no doubt assist in the already rapid development of the RPA industry in Australia as these aircraft become more common in our skies and an increasing number of people turn to them to conduct a variety of operations.