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On 29 September 2016, amendments to Part 101 of the Civil Aviation Safety Regulations 1998 (Cth) came into effect, relaxing rules governing the operation of remotely piloted aircraft (RPAs) in Australia. With the exception of the now infamous Bunnings sausage sizzle episode, those who expected a raft of breaches of the new regulations would be surprised by the lack of reported incidents. Opponents to the amendments say it is still too early to prove their concerns are unfounded and significant risks remain to both the public and the aviation industry as a result of the easing of regulation in this rapidly growing area.

Changes to the regulations

The key amendments that have garnered the attention of critics and supporters alike are:

  • RPAs are now categorised according to gross weight: large (> 150 kg), medium (25 kg – 150 kg), small (2 kg – 25 kg), very small (0.1 kg – 2 kg) or micro (< 0.1 kg).
  • A person can operate or conduct operations using a very small RPA for hire or reward without having to obtain an unmanned aircraft operator's certificate (UOC) or a remote pilot licence (RePL), provided the person first notifies the Civil Aviation Safety Authority (CASA) at least five business days beforehand.
  • An "excluded RPA", which does not require a UOC or RePL, is determined by
    • its category
    • its purpose for operation
    • whether it is being operated by its owner and above land owned by the owner, and
    • whether it is being operated in line with "standard RPA operating conditions".
  • Standard operating conditions include
    • operating an RPA within the visual line of sight
    • at or below 400 feet above ground level by day
    • not within 30 m of a person who is not directly associated with its operation or, within a prohibited or restricted area, and
    • not over a populous area or within three nautical miles of the movement area of a controlled aerodrome. 

Responses so far

The amendments have received support and criticism from government, aviation organisations and authorities since the commencement. In October 2016, Senator Nick Xenophon gave notice to the Senate that he would move a motion to disallow the amendments to Part 101, however, the notice of motion was withdrawn on 22 November 2016. Coincidentally on the same day, the Minister for Infrastructure and Transport announced a review of aviation safety regulations governing RPAs to be overseen by CASA. 

Proponents such as the Australian Association for Unmanned Systems support the amendments as an important step in regulatory reform for the commercial RPA industry, but acknowledge reform alone is insufficient and that steps must be taken to address the risks created by some RPA users.

Opponents such as the Australian Federation of Air Pilots (AFAP) and Australian Certified UAV Operators (ACUO) maintain that the amendments are based on outdated industry consultation and put Australia out of step with the regulations implemented in the United States and Europe. Given Senator Xenophon's withdrawal of his notice of motion, it will be interesting to see if the AFAP and ACUO proceed with an appeal to the High Court, as they originally intended when the amendments were being considered by Parliament.

In the meantime, CASA is investigating the infamous breach to the regulations by a Victorian man who, with the assistance of friends, operated an RPA from his backyard pool to pick up a sausage from a local Bunnings sausage sizzle. With a possible penalty of $9,000 it could prove to be a costly lunch. Those involved with RPAs will no doubt be monitoring the case closely to see if CASA will prosecute, sending a clear message that rogue RPA operators who do not comply with the amendments will not be tolerated. It will also be interesting to see whether the concerns of aviation organisations will become a reality and how such risks will be managed when they arise.

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