Australia’s drone industry has put its weight behind new regulations that will soon require drone users to register their devices and demonstrate their understanding of relevant regulations, but not all hobbyists are happy.
The drone crackdown, by the Civil Aviation Safety Authority (CASA), was already in the works last year – long before (alleged) careless or malicious drone pilots recently caused chaos at London’s Gatwick and Heathrow airports.
Growing numbers of drones – recent estimates suggest there are more than 100,000 drones in Australia alone, and over 1.2 million in the United States – had led to a growing number of near-encounters between drones (also known as remotely piloted aircraft systems, or RPAS) and manned aircraft.
Through June 2017, an Australian Transport Safety Bureau (ATSB) analysis found, there had been no reported collisions in Australia and just five known collisions worldwide; most reported incidents were near-misses above 1,000 feet – well above the 400-feet (120m) ceiling imposed by Civil Aviation Safety Regulations (CASR).
Drone laws are notoriously difficult to enforce, not the least because it can be hard to tie a specific device to its owner.
Where authorities have been able to do so, significant fines have been meted out – such as the $1,050 fine imposed on a man who flew over an Ed Sheeran concert in Brisbane last year.
CASA issued dozens of fines last year, with social media posts providing ample evidence of regular CASR violations.
Automatic Dependant Surveillance Broadcast (ADS-B) transponders – fast becoming ubiquitous in larger aircraft – allow identification of devices in the air and are available in sizes small enough to accommodate drones, although cost and other issues persist.
Industry support for better compliance
The careless actions of recreational drone fliers are a world away from the commercial industry that has built up around drones, which often weigh several kilograms and are used for aerial surveillance, television and film production, industrial inspections, agricultural monitoring, and more.
The importance of responsible drone usage has drawn support for the changes from industry bodies such as the Australian Association for Unmanned Systems (AAUS), whose executive director Greg Tyrrell sees the new regulations as a reasonable step given that other aircraft are already subject to similar identification and training requirements.
“We have been aware of drones in controlled airspace around some of Australia’s airports for a number of years,” he told Information Age.
“The industry has been concerned that one illegal operator could really upset the situation for everyone” by prompting authorities to impose onerous regulations.
“Things like mandatory registration will be a bit of a headache initially, but I think most of the industry will be on board because it’s seen as a pathway that will protect the industry from itself.”
Leave our drones alone
Comments on drone-enthusiast forums suggest attitudes are still falling on both sides of the spectrum.
“They are pulling the wool over your eyes trying to make you swallow a bitter pill,” complained one PhantomPilots user who found the proposed laws disproportionately strict compared to those regulating conventional vehicle licensing.
“If everyone would act with common sense and morals a lot or regulation would be avoided but that’s not the case anymore,” argued another user who conceded that regulation was inevitable and argued for a tiered system.
“With these ‘toys’ going farther, higher, and so much easier to fly, more people who don’t have a vested interest in being safe, smart [and] moral are taking to the skies.”
Others were unrepentant: “You cannot fly over... anything interesting for photography,” argued one Reddit user.
“When rules are too strict I say [forget] the rules. I’ll hide somewhere two miles away to take off and land, good luck finding me. Paying a fine can be the price to be free.”