Mobile worker that I am, I am writing this section in a park while watching a photographer take wedding day photos of a newlywed couple. Rather than using a handheld camera, however, he is using a drone and is sitting in a folding chair. Actually, ‘sitting’ gives him too much credit. He is slumped in a folding chair, with a smartphone in his hand and his eyes fixed on its screen. Seriously, he has not moved from that seat in the entire time I have been watching. I think I might just subtly move away from this group, as I am not sure how confident I am with the photographer’s ability to control his drone from a phone while he is lounging about.
It seems that it is no longer enough to get wedding photos snapped at ground level by a human with a normal camera. Nowadays, the bride and groom must immortalise the best day of their lives with photographs taken by a drone buzzing loudly overhead. Why a newly married couple would want a photo of the groom’s bald spot, and the bride’s cleavage, is beyond me. Well, the bald spot part, anyway.
Back when my wife and I got married, wedding photographers using drones did not exist. Drones did not really exist either. That was only six years ago. Oh, how times have changed.
Today, drones are sold everywhere. There is an entire department of JB HiFi dedicated to drones, probably where they used to sell CDs. Drones are bought and used by all types of people too. From the wedding photographer a couple of metres away from me, to news crews looking for ways to get footage from areas their standard cameras cannot access (or are not allowed to access), to parents giving them to their kids for Christmas because ?, everyone now seems to own a drone that is capable of flying impressive heights and capturing high quality video footage of places, things, and, disturbingly, people.
Given how quickly the drone industry has expanded (Australian consumer drone sales were worth around $480 million in 2016, versus around $250 million in 2015), it is no surprise that the laws of Australia are: (a) not set up to deal with drones and their use in public spaces; and (b) more focussed on how commercial and private planes are flown in our airspaces, rather than smartphone-controlled drones used by unlicensed wedding photographers.
Until September 2016, there was no specific laws or regulations that dealt with the use of drones by individuals in public spaces. Drones were treated just like any other aircraft, so were regulated by the Civil Aviation and Safety Authority (let’s just call it CASA, shall we). People using drones were kind of, but not really, considered pilots for the purposes of the law. That created problems as even I am intelligent enough to appreciate there is a major difference between piloting a $100 cheap drone purchased off eBay and piloting a Boeing 747.
To deal with this situation, specific drone laws were introduced throughout Australia in September 2016. These laws set out how and where you can legally fly a drone, and what sorts of licences and training you need, if any.
CASA regulates the use of drones in Australia, as drones are still classified in a legal sense as an aircraft. These laws also cover all sorts of other flying devices, like remote control planes, fireworks, and pigs.
So, what do you need to know about your legal obligations, before you start using a drone for photography, journalism, or just for shits and giggles?
Most drones that you or I could buy are called ‘recreational use’ drones under these laws, which means you do not need a licence to buy or operate one.
However, if you want to use a recreational drone, you still need to follow some rules set down by CASA. These are:
⁃ You must be able to see the drone at all times.
⁃ You cannot fly it higher than 120 metres above the ground.
⁃ You cannot fly it at night or during bad weather (including foggy and smoky days).
⁃ The drone cannot be flown closer than 30 metres to people, vehicles, buildings, or boats.
⁃ Don’t fly it close to an airfield or army base (this is guaranteed to get you in deep shit).
⁃ You must not multi-drone. That is, you cannot fly more than one drone at the same time.
Using a drone for commercial (money-making) purposes comes with a whole bunch of additional rules, which my mate the wedding photographer is clearly ignoring. The number of rules that apply depend on the size and weight of your drone too. Size always matters, damn it.
If you use a drone that weighs less than 2 kilograms for commercial purposes, you do not need a licence from CASA, but you do need to notify CASA before your first flight. You will also have to follow CASA’s standard operating rules that apply to anyone piloting an aircraft, plus you will have to comply with all the rules that apply to private operators, which I mentioned above. Yes, that is a lot of regulation to fly a lightweight drone for commercial purposes. Blame CASA, not me.
Now, if you have a drone that weighs more than 2 kilograms, and you want to use it for commercial purposes, you need to get a full-on commercial drone licence from CASA. This involves completing a training course with CASA, paying a lot of fees, and having an interview with CASA to make sure you know what you are doing.
That means that if, like me, you have grand plans of operate a drone company that delivers small animals to people in their house or apartment, it is not as simple as buying the biggest drone that you can find, strapping an adorable dog to it, and flying Biggles the beagle off to his forever home. Well, I guess it can be that simple; it just won’t be legal until you get CASA’s nod of approval. As far as I know CASA are not really comfortable issuing commercial drone licences willy-nilly to people like me. I respect and understand their position.
Some local councils have their own rules on drone usage too, particularly the way in which drones can, or (more often) cannot, be used in public areas managed by that council. For example, most councils have banned the use of drones in public parks and on beaches. Park rangers will crash tackle you to the ground if you are caught using one in these areas. Probably.
And, lastly and hopefully obviously, don’t fly a drone around military bases or sites. If you do, not only will you be fined and be in deep shit with the federal police, but the army could decide to shoot your beautiful drone down. And I am sure JB HiFi does not accept returns for act of surface to air missile.