Looking back I cannot believe how woefully naive I was when I bought my first quadcopter three years ago. I had been dreaming about owning a drone for many years and even considered buying one of the early $35,000 models that you flew from a flightcase. So when I got my Phantom 4 I just took it down to the local showground, stuck it in beginners mode and flew it around. I did not give a second thought to any rules or regulations that might govern the use of my drone and why would I? It wasn’t a helicopter. I wasn’t flying people around in it. It was a cool gadget that took photos and video and that was it. I do not think that my experience was at all unique in that regard – unless you’ve ever had anything to do with airports or aircraft you wouldn’t give a second thought to the rules of the sky.
It wasn’t until about a month later that someone messaged me via my Facebook page and told me all about something called restricted airspace. To be honest I just thought he was the fun police, a self-appointed sheriff of the skies and, since I am trying to be honest here – I pretty much ignored everything he said. Couple of weeks later I was sitting down with a friend of mine who happens to be a naval aviator and I mentioned the messages I’d received. Well I’m sure you can guess what’s coming – he confirmed everything the sheriff had said to me, plus a few other rather important pieces of information. So I went home and began reading up on the subject.
Now while I do not consider myself to be an expert on the legalities of flying aircraft, I am considerably better informed than I was when I got my first quadcopter. I would also like to point out that, while I now try and fly within the constraints of the law, it is not my job to police the skies and therefore how you decide to fly your drone is a decision you and you alone must make. If you do want to fly within the law here in Australia, then the following information will assist you but – you know – you do you.
The CASA App is Shit
There are loads of apps out there that the noob drone flyer can download to their smartphone or tablet and most of them, including the official CASA app are shit. When I first started out I downloaded them all and, with just a couple of exceptions, I deleted them all too. The principle problem with most of them is that they over-simplify the situation and can potentially lead you to fly in what could be dangerous situations. Of all the apps though, the one that it is most disappointingly shit, is the Civil Aviation Safety Authority (CASA) ‘Can I Fly There’ app.
Of all the issues with the CASA app, the most concerning one is that (at least on iPhones) it often just stops working for no good reason. By way of an example here a couple of screenshots I took from my phone just now. I centred the map on the Sydney Harbour Bridge (first screenshot) and the app told that it was perfectly okay for me to fly here (second screenshot). This is, of course, completely and totally incorrect. There are many reasons why flying there without any clearances is illegal, but the most well known is that that entire part of Sydney Harbour is restricted airspace (R405A and R405B) due to all the helicopters and seaplanes (amongst other aircraft) that transit through there. So if somebody had this official government app and they fired it up to check before flying they could quite happily launch off the centre of the Sydney Harbour Bridge without a care in the world. I consider that to be a flawed bit of software, how about you? You could even argue it’s bloody good defence if you did fly there and got reported.
The other big issue with the CASA app is that it over-simplifies everything. Down in my part of the world (the Shoalhaven) we have a large area of restricted airspace centred on HMAS Albatross (the main naval air station for the Royal Australian Navy’s aviation branch, the Fleet Air Arm). This restricted airspace is centred on Nowra and extends as far north as Kiama and as far south as Milton – a distance of about 80km from top to bottom. If I based my information solely on the Can I Fly There app then I would literally never be able to fly in my local area. The CASA app (on those rare days when it is working at all) shows the airspace and simply says that you cannot fly there – end of story. Which would be fine except that that is complete bullshit for the simple reason that the airspace is not always active.
Fly the Friendly Skies
So here’s a quick rundown of the basics of airspace here in Australia. The first thing to be aware of is that as soon as your drone leaves the ground it becomes an aircraft and falls under the jurisdiction of CASA. The next thing to be aware of is that there are very tightly controlled regions of airspace blanketing the entire country and when your drone takes off you are flying within one of those airspaces.
To make matters more complicated there are different layers within those regions of airspace constrained by different altitudes above mean sea level (AMSL) – you can see these illustrated in the image below. To take my home town of Berry by way of an example, there are many different airspaces stacked above each other here (as you can see on the screenshot on the left). The good news (since drones can only legally fly as high as 120m above ground level) is that I only need to worry about the airspace on the bottom of the stack – not the one 35,000 feet up where the airliners fly.
Now if you are lucky enough to live in a part of Australia that is not within an area of restricted airspace then you can fly your drone much more freely, within the standard rules. You need to be aware of temporary areas of restricted airspace, such as if a large sporting event was taking place in the area or if there is an emergency such as a bushfire. The app that solves all the problems about knowing when it’s legal to fly is called OzRunways. You still need to check that it’s legal to take off from the land you want to fly on (such as a National Park) but that is not the subject of this article.
OzRunways to the Rescue
So the good news is that, once you get it set up, OzRunways takes a lot of the ball-ache out of knowing when it’s legal to fly somewhere. The bad news it that it has an annual subscription fee of about $99. As far as I’m concerned that’s great value for money because the app hides a shit-tonne of complexity behind some simple graphics. The app is designed for actual pilots, not just drone pilots and therefore contains far more information than the average quadcopter flyer will ever need, but this should not deter anyone from using it.
The key feature in OzRunways that makes its annual subscription worthwhile is that it shows precisely where the areas of restricted airspace are and, more importantly, when they are actually active. It gets this information about the status of the restricted airspace from the official NOTAMs (Notice to AirMen) directives that are distributed by CASA. Take a look at the screenshot on the left and you’ll see exactly what I’m talking about. That area shaded pink on the lower-right is active restricted airspace within which I cannot fly my drone. The area around the little aeroplane icon is restricted airspace which is not active and within which I can quite legally fly my drone. If I was using the official CASA app I would never have known this.
Once you’ve installed OzRunways on your phone and set up your trial account, you can set it up for drone use. The first time you run it you will be asked to select a region and you should obviously select Australia. You will then need to download a map, so click the map icon at the bottom and download Hybrid VFR to your smartphone or tablet. Now we need to declutter the map – to do this click on the settings icon and then on Airspace.
You should now see the list of airspace types listed (as per the screenshot on the left) – the only ones you’ll ever need are the top four – CTA and CTR (controlled airspace that exists in the vicinity of an airport), FIA (Flight Information Area) and PRD ( Prohibited, Restricted and Danger Areas i.e. Military).
Right at the top of the list you will also see Highlight Active Restricted Areas. This is the most important one to enable because it’ll show us precisely when an area of restricted airspace is active or not. Now that we’ve got the system set-up you’ll be able to fire up OzRunways at any time and see if your current location is within an area of active restricted airspace.
Other cool things you can do with the app include enabling a radar overlay to view any incoming storm activity. To do this, just click on the radar icon in the toolbar (it looks like a cloud with a lightning bolt in it) and, after a short moment while the overlay refreshes, you’ll see areas of storm activity marked.
If you need to contact a particular airfield you can also view this information within the app. To do this click near the airfield in question and you will then see a list of nearby locations, like the screenshot on the right. There is lots of useful information on this screen, including the airfield’s code (i.e. YJBY for Jervis Bay), the airfield’s distance from you (useful for staying 5.5km away) and the airband frequency you would use to contact that airfield if it had a control tower. To view even more information about an airfield, click on it from the list and then on Wx/Notams. You can now view weather information and NOTAM details.
The last useful feature of OzRunways that we are going to discuss is the ERSA. The ERSA (En Route Supplement Australia) is used by pilots to plan flights within Australia. It includes graphics of all licenced aerodromes and gets updated every 12 weeks. Other information that is useful for drone flyers are the hours of operation, CTAF frequency and the aerodrome operators’ details.
To view the section of the ERSA relevant to a specific airfield, select it from the map and then click on it from the list of Closest Points (as per the screenshot on the right). You will now see a summary screen for that airfield and right down at the bottom you will see ERSA and below that the letters FAC (which is short for facilities). Click on that and you’ll a screen similar to the one on the left. There is a load of useful information in this document but the one that I have always found most helpful is the phone number for the tower, which is listed right at the top. In the case of my local airfield (Jervis Bay) I can see a contact email address, phone numbers and, if I have an airband scanner, the frequency the tower uses so I can listen to any radio traffic between nearby aircraft and the tower. If you are unsure about using your drone nearby then you can phone the tower and they will let you know what the situation is.
Knowledge is Power
You are now equipped with all the information you need to fly legally here in Australia. If the drone police get up you about the legality of a photograph or video you took with your drone, you can tell them to fuck off, knowing that you did all the appropriate checks before flying. If you have found this guide useful then please consider following me on Instagram and Facebook.