Australia's New Drone Laws Explained

Is it legal to fly drones in AustraliaImage: iStock

Last week, it became legally easier to fly drones in Australia, with the relaxation of Civil Aviation Safety Authority rules about “remotely piloted aircraft”, or RPAs. Here's what you need to know — including what it means for your privacy.

Drone footage is everywhere, whether used to film extreme sports, outdoor events, nature, music festivals, or just for its own sake. Recreational aircraft such as quadcopters, fixed-wing and mini drones are getting ever cheaper and easier to buy. They are fast becoming a must-have item for people who want to document their activities for social media, or just explore their neighbourhood. With the relaxation of RPA rules, you can expect to see a lot more of this moving forward.

This change is partly due to the significant challenges of regulating something that is so easy to buy and even easier to use. As a result, you can expect to see many more drones in the sky from today – and of course, given that they routinely have high-resolution cameras on board, you can expect a lot more drones to be seeing you.

Of course, some people want to be watched.

What do the relaxed rules involve?

The new, relaxed regulations – first proposed in April this year – will exempt drones under certain weight limits from licensing and notice requirements.

In particular, drones weighing less than 2kg will not need to be licensed at all. Owners only need to notify CASA of their use if it is for commercial purposes. Similarly, drones under 25kg can also be flown without licensing or notification requirements if they are used for “sport and recreation”, or if they are flown on private land and used for private aerial photography, spotting, communications or agricultural operations.

Operators of drones weighing more than 100g will still have to steer clear of certain areas, under the so-called “standard RPA operating conditions”. This means no flying in controlled or prohibited airspace; above 400ft (122m); at night; in swarms; over emergency operations without approval; within 30m of another person; out of the pilot’s direct line of sight; or in an area of “sufficient density of population for some aspect of the operation … to pose an unreasonable risk to the life, safety or property”.

What about privacy?

What is notably absent from the standard RPA operating conditions is any requirement to avoid flying over private property. Nor do the rules require the operator to respect the privacy of others or refrain from filming them, either on their own land or in public.

That may concern some people, because in Australia there is little legal recourse if someone films you in your backyard, in a secluded area or even through your window at home.

The loosening of the rules thus has obvious implications for privacy. Every new drone platform is basically an eye in the sky, capable of recording high-resolution images and video.

In 2014, a Commonwealth House of Representatives standing committee warned:

Remotely piloted aircraft (RPAs) have the potential to pose a serious threat to Australians’ privacy. They can intrude on a person’s or a business’s private activities either intentionally, as in the case of deliberate surveillance, or inadvertently.

The committee recommended a raft of urgent legislative changes to counter the wide-scale adoption of “privacy-invasive technologies” like drones. But the recommendations were not taken up by the government, and nor was the committee’s echoing of the recommendation by the Australian Law Reform Commission that Australia develop a “tort of privacy” to guard people against intrusion by drones.

Such a measure would allow individuals to sue for damages if another person grossly violates their private life or affairs. While this privacy law remedy is available in other countries, Australian courts have generally rejected it.

This is largely a result of a 1936 court case brought against a man called George Taylor, who built a viewing platform on land next to Victoria Park Racetrack so he could call the races over the radio. The racecourse sued him for a breach of privacy but the High Court of Australia rejected the claim, not wanting to set a precedent by which neighbours could sue one another for simply peering over a fence. Chief Justice Latham’s reasoning was simple:

Any person is entitled to look over the plaintiff’s fences and to see what goes on in the plaintiff’s land. If the plaintiff desires to prevent this, the plaintiff can erect a higher fence.

This reasoning has prevailed in Australia ever since. But as the sky grows ever more saturated with cameras, it becomes harder to justify. No longer can you just build a higher fence, unless of course you want to box in your entire property from any aerial observation.

This is why the legal justification has been criticised by scholars, lawyers and privacy advocates, as well as by parliamentary bodies specifically in response to “privacy-invasive technologies” like drones.

Given that nothing has been done about it – even while agencies like CASA make it ever easier to record invasive footage – it may be time to accept that, in Australia at least, the age of privacy might really be over.

The Conversation

Brendan Gogarty, Lecturer in Law, University of Tasmania

This article was originally published on The Conversation.

WATCH MORE: Tech News

Comments

    And this might be why there was some idiot flying one in the departure path at Sydney today!!

    It sounds too yellow for lifehacker... All speculations about connection of the regulation change and higher number of drones are just made up by journalists. There is no ground under that at all.

    The regulation change can be explained in one sentence... There is no change in regulation for recreational droning, for commercial droning license isn't required if drone is under 2 kg.

    And it always was crazy with drones... e.g. check this 2 year old video https://vimeo.com/99063965 and find how many breaches are filmed in there:
    - no flights over populated areas
    - 30 meters to closest people
    - drone has to be always in a direct sight area

    Privacy is kinda voided under "within 30m of another person" which is probably why CASA hasn't bothered with it. As well as the fact that privacy isn't really CASA's concern.

    Is there any more clarity around 'not flying a drone within an emergency situation'? I see this being a big take up area in the coming years as people and news outlets get more engrossed in drones.

    Therefore, what constitutes an emergency? And what distance must they observe? And what's a swarm of drones? And does that mean adding drones to an event nullifies every existing drone's right to film?

    Last edited 03/10/16 9:49 am

    Do these laws lift the restriction on operating close to airports? Because I live close to an airport and would like to at least take a flight in my backyard (Below 50 feet - if any aircraft comes so low over the house they're going to crash!)

      No, Those restrictions are still in place for good reason. Go to a public park or something similar.

      Better yet, Find a friend with a farm or a big plot of land.

      It sucks for your situation, But those rules exists for a reason.

      Last edited 03/10/16 10:18 pm

    Kind of one-sided article. Started out as a guide to the changed in the law and turned into a polemic about privacy. As someone else pointed out, the fact that you're not allowed to fly within 30m of anyone unconnected with you or your company makes the whole privacy thing largely irrelevant. Also most drones are very noisy and the only way you could hover one near someone's bedroom window without alerting them to your drone's presence would be if they were stone deaf.

    What's on my mind...

    When is legislation going to catch up with technology and quickly respond to the technology surrounding drones.

    At about $100 anyone can buy a drone and film their neighbours property

    That is an invasion of privacy
    And
    An enormous security risk

    On the former.
    Why should a neighbour presume to be able to fly a drone over your property and film you in the privacy of your own property

    In the second
    Thieves can now fly a drone right around your house to check on assets and who is at home

    Both are unacceptable

    But our government needs to protect the rights of individuals

    How long will it be before they legislate to make flying a drone over residential property illegal

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