Australian Drone Guide 2020/2021 - Buying and Flying Legally

When the first consumer drones appeared on the market, the public and indeed the authorities were largely oblivious to them. In the early days they were mainly flown by hobbyists who had an interest in radio controlled aircraft, but later on as the cameras got better, as the safety systems improved and as the control systems simplified such that pretty much anyone could fly one - they really, if you'll excuse the pun, took off. Fast forward a decade and drones have become mass-market consumer items available for purchase in every high street electrical store in the world. The quality of the drones has improved in inverse proportion to their price and it's now possible to buy a 4K drone with cutting edge safety features and a 10km transmission range for 750 bucks.

Something else has changed too. Consumer drones have managed to acquire a crappy reputation as intrusive, wildlife upsetting banshees used almost entirely, if you believe everything you read in community Facebook groups, for perving on middle-aged women while they're on the upstairs shitter. 

In 2021, the authorities are also fully invested in the world of drones. Starting with some high profile prosecutions for crimes such as the infamous Bunnings snag stunt, they have slowly but surely brought the same level of interference, oversight, regulation, bureaucracy and taxation to the scene as every other facet of life in 21st century Australia. The clamp-down is now nearly complete, the drone-makers complicit in the authorities control methods, and flying a drone in 2021 is a very different experience from back in the day.

So here then, is my guide to buying and using a drone legally in Australia in 2021, in three parts - buying your drone, taking care of the legal side of things and flying it. Remember however that I am not a lawyer and none of the following constitutes legal advice. 

Part One

Buying a Drone

Brand

The biggest players in the consumer drone market are DJI, Parrot, Autel and Skydio and of those DJI are far and away the top dogs with a massive 76% market-share. DJI drones are excellent, but these days the competition is excellent too and the Autel Evo 2, Parrot Anafi and Skydio 2 are every bit as good as DJI's Mavic. So before you buy, carefully consider what you're going to use the drone for. If you plan on filming yourself on downhill runs on a mountain bike then the Skydio 2 would be a far better choice than a Mavic Air for instance. If you're a film-maker then the 8K video mode on the Autel Evo 2 would be a great choice. You'll probably end up with a DJI, because it's the path of least resistance, but just be aware that there are other options.

Size

Drones used to come in the same form factor, but these days you have way more options. And it's not a simple case of just choosing the size that appeals most to you, because they all have different uses. The DJI Phantom's form factor puts a lot of people off these days, but they are still popular drones due to their design. If you're hand-catching a drone because you're on something that's moving, such as a boat, then you will find the Phantom's large looped legs to be infinitely preferable to the slim body of a Mavic. Meanwhile the smaller foldable drones such as the Mavic, Evo and Anafi are of course great if you need to walk anywhere with them in a backpack. 

However the size of drone you get also has a bearing on the red tape you'll face after you buy it. Governments around the world have adopted a sub-250g drone class which removes a lot of restrictions and paperwork that larger drones suffer from. Drone manufacturers like DJI produced models like the Mavic Mini which fell into this sub-250g weight class and which, here in Australia, can be flown in more places, more often and require much less paperwork.

Model

Then we come to the model and this should be the principle factor that influences you to pick it. Ask yourself honestly what you are going to do with the drone and how you're going to go about that. If you're a travel YouTuber for instance, then the DJI Mavic range is an obvious choice, due to its flexible feature-set. However if you're more of a film-maker than an influencer then the 8K sensors and first-rate image quality on the newer Autel drones would be worth considering. If you're prepared to fore-go log video formats for the sake of world-class collision detection and advanced subject tracking then the Skydio drones are your best-bet. If you just want a drone for a bit of fun flying at the weekends then you really don't need the 4:2:0 10-bit 4K footage on the Mavic Pro or Air 2 and something like the Mavic Mini is a much more sensible option. My point is that you should be realistic about what you're going to do with the drone.

Accessories

There are of course a huge number of after-market and manufacturer produced add-ons that you can get for your new drone, but very few are essential. Top of your list should be a couple of spare batteries. Flight time on pretty much all modern drones is about 30 minutes best-case and if you're out shooting video for the day then you'll need to switch out those batteries regularly. If you are shooting video then do invest in a set of ND filters to enable you to shoot at good apertures in bright sunlight. Sun-visors for your drone controller screen whether it's a mobile phone or a special screen are a great idea and make flying in broad daylight much safer since you can actually see what's on the screen. Foldable landing pads are great and mean you don't have to stress about hand-catching your drone. Buy a few V90 UHS-II SD cards too - Kingston, Lexar and Sony are great - Sandisk not so much. 

Oh and while we're on the subject of after-market accessories - let's briefly mention DJIs Care. This is a $150 insurance policy for your DJI drone that covers you for accidental damage and offers a certain piece of mind that if you stuff it up badly and fly your new drone into a wall, you can get it replaced. If you only occasionally fly near or over water, then it's probably worth getting, particularly when you're new to flying drones. However since you need to send the damaged drone back to DJI under the terms and conditions, it's not as useful as it might seem. If you lose your drone in a remote location, or it gets stuck up a tree and you can't retrieve or you fly it into the ocean, then you're fucked. It also doesn't cover flyaways on most of the range. 

New or Used

Buy new and shop around because deals are coming up all of the time. If you're getting a DJI drone then there's no particular advantage in buying directly from them, but if you're buying from one of the other manufacturers then buying direct from them is probably going to be the only option. There are some good specialist drone shops too, like Rise Above here in NSW, and these guys are well worth a look because you get excellent support and someone local to speak to if things go wrong. 

I would advise against getting a second-hand drone because it's easy to conceal crash damage and you really have no idea how many hours its flown for. It is possible to check things like flight hours on motors, but I trust those figures about as much as I would the surprisingly low mileage on a car-lot bargain previously owned by an old lady who just drove it to church on Sundays. If you buy new you have a manufacturer's warranty and, in the case of DJI, the chance to buy Care Refresh too. Also be very wary of second-hand batteries because, certainly in the case of DJI and its Mavic range, these are notorious for getting bloated and failing, sometimes when the drone's in use. I had a bloated Mavic battery pop its clips and nearly eject itself from the drone, so tread carefully.

Drone Care

When it comes to looking after your drone, always inspect it before you fly it. Make sure the props are correctly secured, and make sure the battery is properly seated. If you're not using your drone, do not keep the batteries permanently plugged into the charger as this will shorten their lifespan. Remember to rotate your batteries so that you get even usage across them all and at the first sign of battery damage or bloating, safety dispose of them and buy new because you do not want one failing in mid-air.

When it comes to actually flying your drone - remember to take baby steps - fly in beginners mode at first until you understand the controls. Learn to fly your drone by the sticks, looking at your drone and without relying on the life feed and you will able to fly much more confidently. Remember that all drones have Return to Home functions these days and should be used if you are concerned about it getting it back safely - but try not to rely to heavily on the automated modes.

Part Two

The Paperwork

There are unfortunately some legal requirements around using a drone which make purchasing and owning one a much less care-free experience than it used to be. Like your car, you will have to remember to take care of some licensing paperwork once a year and, also like a car, you'll have to take care of a few forms and pay some money to the government when you buy it new. 

Will the feds come knocking on your door if you *don't* complete all this paperwork - probably not. Does it attract large fines if you are caught not doing the paperwork - yes. Ultimately it's pretty similar to a car - you'll be okay until your luck runs out. If you plan on selling photos or videos produced on your drone then you really have no option other than to fly legally because whoever you sell your stuff to is probably going to ask.

CASA

Control of the airspace over a country is typically administered by two organisations - the first is the military and the second is a department of the government who look after all the non-military aircraft. Here in Australia that organisation is the Civil Aviation Safety Authority or CASA for short. These guys used to purely concern themselves with actual aircraft like passenger jets, light aircraft and helicopters - but now they are in charge of drones too and I dare say they'd rather they weren't.

Drones represent a unique problem for CASA because while all other aircraft are flown by people who have a vested interest in doing things the right way, many drone users couldn't give a fuck about that and just want to have a bit of fun. So they've had to adapt to a changing world and the process has not been an easy one. Thanks to lobbying by commercial drone groups and by other government agencies and thanks in no small part to a tonne of bad press - CASA were backed into a corner and had to introduce official processes around drones. As I mentioned earlier, the men in black are unlikely to knock on your door and ask why your drone isn't registered, but if the shit hits the fan then you might regret not doing things the official way. And anyway - we live in Australia don't we - we're using to having every single facet of our lives registered and levied with a tax of some kind, so it's just one more on a very long list.

Registering Yourself

Alright - the first item on our list is operator accreditation. You need to get your operator accreditation if you are flying any drone that weighs more than 250g and for all drones if you are doing so for business purposes whatever weight they are. What kind of business purposes? CASA supply this list of examples:

- selling photos or videos taken from a drone

- inspecting industrial equipment, construction sites or infrastructure

- monitoring, surveillance or security services

- research and development

- any drone activities for your employer 

At the moment this accreditation is free, but so was drone registration initially and now you have to pay, so bear that in mind. Operator accreditation  is open only to people aged 16 and over and it is valid for three years. 

So - to be crystal clear - if you own a Mavic Mini - which falls into the sub-250g category, or any other drone that weighs less than 250g like a homemade FPV drone, and you do not fly for business purposes then you do not currently need an operator accreditation certificate. Everyone else - tough shit. Sub-250g - just for fun - no operator accreditation required - literally everyone else - you need one.

Alright - so yes - you probably need an operator accreditation - sorry about that - blame the government. And in order to get this accreditation you need to jump through more hoops first! You need to create a MyCASA accoun, you need to apply for an Aviation Reference Number - more commonly referred to as an ARN and then you get to do a short online test. Still with me? Good!

Okay firstly need to create your MyCASA account - this is not the accreditation bit - just a login so you can manage all this official paperwork. Think of it as MyGov for your drone and you won't be too wide of the mark. Anyway - create a log-in, confirm your email address and then log-in.

If you do not have an ARN then you need to apply for one. Anyone that flies an aircraft (and yes, drones are officially classed as aircraft) needs an ARN - so if you ever plan on doing your pilots licence or whatever, then you can use your ARN for that too. When I applied for my ARN it took about a week to come through, but they may have speeded up the process these days with all the irate drone users flooding their no-doubt chronically under-staffed and poorly designed systems. 

Once you have your ARN, you can log into MyCASA and click on the RPA Operator Accreditation box. Alright now comes the good bit - the test. What's in the test - a bunch of extremely easy questions related to the "standard operating conditions". The standard operating conditions are the rules that have been in place for many years now, such as going no higher than 120m and not flying your drone several kilometres over suburban housing estates to procure an under-cooked beef sausage in a bit of white bread from a large DIY store. In any case, it's probably an idea to familiarise yourself with the rules before sitting the test. Most of it's basic common sense stuff and no trigonometry is involved.

Alright. MyCASA account - tick. ARN - tick. Online test - tick. Once you've passed the test you can download your RPA Operator Accreditation certificate and, if you are flying a sub-250g drone for fun - then you're done. Yay!

Drone Registration

Alright - so you've registered yourself - now you need to register your drone. If you own a Mavic Mini or any other drone under 250g and you're flying for fun you do not currently have to register your drone. That will undoubtedly change in the future, but right now sub-250g drones are not taxed if they are not used for business purposes. Got it? Cool. 

Okay - as I record this in September 2021 - if your drone weighs *more* than 250g and you are flying for fun then you do not currently have to register your drone. If your drone weighs more than 250g and you are flying for business purposes then you need to register your drone now. Okay?

So that's the situation right now and that information is valid right up until the 30th of May 2022. 

Hold on mate? What happens on the 30th of May 2022? Thanks mate, I'm glad you asked that question - on the 30th of May 2022 the rules are changing again. From the 1st of June 2022 onwards - all drones heavier than 250g will need to be registered. 

That's right - no matter who owns them or whether they are being flown for fun or for business - all drones over the 250g weight bracket, must be registered after the 30th of May 2022. And yes, that means paying a registration fee which is currently $40 a year per drone. I predict that sales of Mavic Minis will skyrocket. 

To register your drone you log into your MyCASA account, click on the link to register a drone and follow the prompts. If you sell your drone, you should remember to hop onto your MyCASA account and deregister it because if the person you sold it to flies it into Scott Morrisons' face while he's eating a cheeseburger at Engadine Maccers, then the feds will come looking for you.

Once a year you will have to renew your registration and pay $40 for the honour. 

What will happen if you do not register your drone? Probably the same as if you don't register your car - nothing at all until the day the authorities ask to see your registration certificate at which point you'll be in the shit. I know quite a few folks who have no intention of registering their drones and the truth is (and I am not advocating for breaking the law) they'll probably be fine. We must all make our own decisions on this. 

I've registered myself and my drone because I fly commercially, but even if I didn't I'd probably still register it because it beats constantly looking over my shoulder waiting for some arsehole to grass me up. Drones have a pretty crappy reputation at the moment and if CoVID has proved anything, it's that Aussies more than happy to dob in anyone they perceive to be breaking the law. So if you encounter someone who takes a dislike to your drone and to you and either calls the authorities or films you flying your drone and getting back in your car (as has happened to me!) then you might end up in the shit. 

Part Three

Flying Legally

Alright, so you've completed all the tedious online forms, you've done the test and you've got all of your paperwork in order. You can now choof off and fly your drone wherever you goddman please. Right? 

Of course you can't.

Standard Operating Conditions

You are legally required to observe the standard operating conditions. These have been in place for many years and have not changed substantially during that period. I'm not going to go over them all, just point out five things that you should be aware of if you want to fly fully legally. 

Don't shoot the messenger.

1. You must fly your drone in visual line-of-sight. That means you're supposed to be able to see your drone with your own eyes at all times. So if you send your drone up into the air, fix your eyes on your smartphone screen showing the live feed from your drone and proceed to zoom a few kilometres away using only the screen to navigate - that's illegal. It also means you can't fly the drone behind some obstacle (such as as building), or in fog or smoke. How would they prove that you flew beyond visual line-of-sight unless they witness you doing it in person and without any metadata stored in the videos or photographs? That's an interesting question, isn't it.

2. Secondly, you're supposed to fly during the day. Sounds pretty simple, right? But what is the official definition of day? Can you legally fly at sunrise and sunset? I am happy to answer that question for you.

Here's the actual text from CASA's visual flight rules regulations.

‘Night’ is that period between the end of the evening civil twilight and the beginning of the morning civil twilight. For all intents and purposes, first light should be construed as the beginning of civil twilight and last light as the end of civil twilight.

This means that you can legally put your drone in the air before sunrise and fly it after sunset. The actual timing will change over the course of the year, but if we take today by way of an example, morning civil twilight begins at 5:16am and sunrise is at 5:41am - so I have nearly half an hour before sunrise when I can legally fly my drone. And if we look at this evening then sunset is at 5:56pm, but civil twilight doesn't end until 6:22pm - so again I can legally fly my drone for just shy of half an hour after sunset. If it's a cloudy day and there's no sunset colour this means it's possible to shoot urban night scenes and be completely legal! I use the Lumy app on my iPhone to see the exact times of civil twilight and the SunCalc+ app on android does the same thing. 

3. Thirdly, you're required to fly no higher than 120m. However that rule is 120m AGL (above ground level)  - not sea level. So if you're up a 500m mountain for instance, you can legally fly your drone 620m above sea level. This can be quite handy when you want to get a bit of extra height in your shots and there happens to be a nearby hill or mountain! Do bear in mind of course that as you move over the slopes of the hill or mountain your height above ground level might exceed 120m, so remember to descend or ascend as required. Also, buildings don't count, so you can't fly your drone above the Sydney Sky Tower.

4. You are not allowed to fly closer than 5.5km from a controlled airport. This is a fairly common-sense rule as far as I'm concerned because I don't want my drone endangering any aircraft with people in them. However, there are a couple of points to be made here. Firstly the rule talks about 'controlled' airports - which are (usually) ones with control towers. Little grass-strip airfields are usually not controlled airports and you are allowed to fly within that 5.5km if there are no aircraft in the area and so long as you stay outside the airfield boundary. Secondly sub-250g drones can fly within the 5.5km radius of controlled airports although obviously not within the airfield boundaries. You should of course apply some common sense and not go endangering the safety of any aircraft.

5. While the laws do vary around Australia, you can photograph or film people in public and you can photograph or film them in their own property with your drone. You should of course respect people's privacy and not go filming people sun baking nude in their backyards, but if someone gets in your face and tells you it's illegal to photograph them, particularly when they are in public, then they are wrong. Even in WA where the Surveillance Devices Act 1998 prohibits the use of optical surveillance devices by a person to monitor or record someone engaged in private activity - they still make an exception for accidental photography. 

6. There are regulations and laws prohibiting the use of drones near marine mammals and if you'd like to know more about this, check out my video on the subject which I'll link here. You are not supposed to get within 100m of a marine mammal such as a whale or dolphin, but research has shown they are highly unlikely to be bothered by a drone and so if one happens to surface near where you're filming, then be sure to video it as you move the drone away! As with everything else, simply try not to be a dick - for instance if a bird takes exception to your drone, then let them have the airspace and go fly somewhere else.

Airspace

The first thing to understand is that once a drone is in the air, even if it's an inch off the ground, it falls under the control of Air Services Australia, not whoever owns the land. So while an organisation such as Parks Victoria might have a blanket ban on drones in all state parks, national parks and reserves across the entire state - as they do - that only prohibits you from taking off and landing on their land. Parks Victoria do not control the airspace above the park and there is nothing stopping you from taking off on public land nearby and then flying over the park. This applies to literally everywhere in Australia - airspace is controlled by Air Services Australia, not the owner of the land and all the no-drone signs in the world won't change that. My usual guidance about not being a twat still applies, but know your rights!

Drone use is also either banned outright or subject to a timetable of closures in certain areas and this is known as restricted airspace. An example of an area where recreational drone use is banned outright is most of Sydney Harbour.  You can apply to fly there and professional media organisations regularly do, but you're unlikely to get permission if you just want to film the Opera house for your TikTok. 

Far and away the best way of seeing if a particular location is in restricted airspace is to look at the o2kfly.com.au website. Not only does this show where the restricted airspace zones are, but it shows you if they are active. As I mentioned, some airspace is permanently restricted, but some zones operate on a timetable. An example of this is where I live in South Coast NSW. Here we have a large area of restricted airspace that covers most of the Shoalhaven LGA and is centred on the military airfield in Nowra. This cramps my style somewhat and means I can't fly my drone whenever I want. It's annoying as fuck, but fortunately the airspace is not active 24/7 - typically speaking it's not active at weekends and typically doesn't become active before 10am in the morning. So I can legally fly early mornings and at weekends. Just check 0K2Fly and you'll see instantly if you're good to go.  

Weather

Today's drones are extremely capable and can fly well in most conditions except for heavy rain. If you get caught out and it does start to rain, bring the drone back as soon as you can as the motors don't do so well with water. Let it dry out fully before flying it again and remember to run the motors up and let them run for a few minutes before trusting your drone to the sky.

When it comes to wind you'd be surprised just how much your drone can handle. Anything short of very strong to gale force winds are probably going to be fine, but remember that the drone uses more battery power when fighting the wind and if you have to bring the drone home in in strong wind you may struggle to make it back before the battery is depleted. I tend to keep my drone on the ground in anything over 30kph winds, which is well inside the recommended maximum for my drone of 40kph, but I did get caught on one day, flew it in 50kph winds and it coped with it amazingly well. So have confidence in your drone as it is a capable machine.

Your drone may also suffer from heat and this is worth bearing in mind if flying during the summer months here in Australia. An over-heated drone is a dead drone, so be mindful of temperatures and perhaps fly early or late in the day when the temperatures are lower. Check your drone manual for the maximum rated temperatures - on my Mavic 2 Pro it's 40ºc. Do not try and recharge a hot battery - because you can damage it this way - let it cool first. You'll also pick up a fair amount of bug jam during the summer months, so remember to give your drone a good clean when you get home. 

Happy Flying

Well that's it guys - that's how to fly a drone here in Australia and to do it legally and safely. It's a lot to take in when you're new to this, but I hope this guide's put you a bit closer to understanding it all.

For the last 16 years I’ve been photographing, blogging (and more recently vlogging) about everything I find, see and enjoy here in South Coast, New South Wales. This is my blogging site focused on my hobby (and part-time job) of photography. Please enjoy my little writing and my photography and I’d love to hear your feedback.
© 2021 Andy Hutchinson
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