Drones – Flying Legally in Australia in 2020
By now you probably heard that the Australian government changed the rules and regulations around drone use in Australia. Whether you fly for fun or profit, you will soon need to comply with a number of legal requirements. Here’s what you need to know.
So, despite the fact that drones continue to have an incredible track-record when it comes to safety, the Australian government bought into the drones-are-evil narrative peddled by the media and instructed the Civil Aviation Safety Authority (CASA) to reign-in drone use. They are in the process of heavily legislating the use of drones and have started the process with anyone who makes money from them. The professional drone associations have also been lobbying for tighter restrictions ever since the government announced that you could legally fly an under-2Kg drone for commercial purposes without needing any licences. As usually happens, the little-guy lost out, the powerful lobby groups and the big media corporations won the day and CASA rolled out a brand new set of rules that need to be complied with. Personally I think the whole situation stinks, but since the paperwork that’s now required to fly legally and commercially is currently free, you don’t have much to lose by falling into line.
If you’re just a recreational flyer and you never earn any money from selling photos or videos created with your drone then you have a bit of breathing space. However in 2022 that all changes and all drones above 250g will have to be registered in Australia.
Back in July 2019, CASA added an amendment to the Part 101 regulations that govern the legal use of unmanned aircraft. This amendment brought into law the requirement to register your drone(s) if you’re flying commercially and to get a drone accreditation too. Previously there was no requirement to register anything in the sub-2Kg category – you could just buy a drone in JB Hi-Fi, walk out of the store, fly it and sell the photos or videos. The standard rules governing actual drone flights (120m maximum height, 30m from people etc) have not changed, but they have gone to great lengths to spell out some of the dodgier areas of drone use.
If you only ever fly your drone for fun, for your own pleasure and you never make any money out of it, then (at this stage) you do not have to register your drone or get accredited.
For the recreational drone flyer, the new red tape comes into force in 2022. In March 2022 the registration scheme will open and by the end of May 2022 it will be a legal requirement to register any drone above the 250g category in Australia and to pass a basic accreditation test. At this stage the registration and accreditation will be free, but only a fool would trust the government to keep it that way. You can absolutely guarantee that here in Australia, where absolutely everything is licenced and taxed, you will eventually be paying for the honour of flying your drone whether you do so for shit-and-giggles or for cold hard cash. It’s a sorry situation and a total over-reaction by the government, but you can thank the right-wing media (print and broadcast) for turning drones into objects of hate and the professional drone organisations for helping to demonise the recreational drone flyer.
In order to register your drone you will need to create an account on CASA’s new online portal called myCASA. You’ll need to provide proof of identification (usually your passport) and you’ll also need an Aviation Reference Number or ARN, which you have to apply for separately. Yep – lots of lovely form filling and jumping through hoops. Once you’ve proved who you are and got your ARN, you can register your drone by make, model and serial number. If you destroy your drone or sell it then you’re also required to unregister it.
I had previously got my ARN because it was a requirement of a drone insurance policy I held, but it took a couple of weeks to come through and I doubt this has changed. I’ve been through the process of registering my drone and it was relatively painless because I already had my ARN. It’s basically a few pages of online forms and then you receive a notification email and a certificate that proves your registered. You will have to show this certificate to law enforcement officials if asked to do so, so you’ll need to keep it handy either online or in printed form.
The same roll-out of legal requirements that apply to drone registration will also apply to drone accreditation. By May 2022, anyone who flies a drone in Australia for recreational or commercial purposes will need to be licenced. If you currently earn money with your drone, then you’ll need to get licenced by the end of January 2021. If you only fly recreationally then you have until the end of May 2022 to fall into line.
As with drone registration, getting your accreditation is currently free and, once you’ve done it, it’s valid for three years. It’s not a particularly difficult test even for someone with the vaguest understanding of civil aviation regulations. I thought I’d just give it a go and see how I did with no preparation at all and I passed first time. You’ll be asked all sorts of incredibly obvious questions, such as ‘Are you allowed to fly in fog out of line of sight of your drone?’ and ‘Is it okay to fly over government house with an improvised explosive device strapped to the bottom of your drone?’. (Only one of those is a real question). And if you fuck up you can re-take it as often as you like, which kind of proves the point that the main purpose of this legislation is to catalogue and track drones and their owners and not actually test anyone.
This is all, I’m sure you’ll agree, something of a beat-up. Along with the new registration and accreditation schemes, new fines have been introduced. If you fly without the necessary paperwork, and assuming you get caught doing so, they can fine you up to $11,000. Only the Australian Federal Police, State and Territory and authorised representatives of CASA can ask you to show your paperwork though, so if anyone else asks, tell ’em to get fucked.
Like the rules around flying drones near marine mammals, which were introduced despite the fact that there had never been a case of harm to said mammals by a drone, these new laws are being introduced despite there being only a handful of legitimate issues with illegal drone use. Most of the reports about drones in the media turn out to be a case of mistaken identity, such as pilots regularly misidentifying plastic bags as drones. Most of the local media stories centre around some paranoid Karen thinking the bloke shooting real estate photos two blocks over has a burning desire to photograph her saggy bum in a pair of yoga-pants, or some far-right gun-toting bogan worried they’ll spot his backyard cannabis plantation.
So it’s fair to say that the Wild West days of drone use – if there ever were any – are over. You can choose not to register your drone of course and choose not to get your online accreditation done and that is your prerogative. Unless you do something stupid like flying near a bushfire or across an active runway you’re unlikely to get caught. However the day is coming where they’ll register the drone to your name in the shop and it’ll be locked until you prove you’ve done your accreditation, mark my words.