10 Things to Think About When Flying Your Drone For Fun in Australia

Published: 5 April 2018

Whether you are considering buying a drone and hitting the skies, or a seasoned pilot, here are ten tips for safely navigating the airways. The official term for a drone is Remotely Piloted Aircraft (RPA), however I will use the term drone in this article because I prefer it.

Admittedly, this is a bit of a ‘don’t do this, don’t do that’ article. However, you are better off reading this ‘fun police’ piece than being caught by the real police if you don’t follow the rules. Although arguably, only the Civil Aviation Safety Authority (CASA) can sting you for flying your drone outside the regulations; but I do not recommend relying on that argument if you come up against the Fuzz when piloting your drone. Ok, time for take-off…

1. Keep an eye on it, preferably two

Hope you ate your carrots as a child because you need to be able to see your drone at all times when piloting. That unfortunately also means you’re not allowed to use those awesome First Person View (FPV) immersive goggles.

2. No higher than the Great Pyramid of Giza

You’re not allowed to fly higher than 400 feet AGL (Above Ground Level), which is about 120 metres, so about 35-storeys, which is a bit lower than the tip of the Great Pyramid.

The ‘Above Ground Level’ reference is there because if you’re standing on top of Mount Kosciuszko where your ground level is already 2,200-odd metres above sea level, then 120 metres above ground level has you flying at about 2,320 metres above sea level. I’m not advocating that you fly your drone on Mount Kosciuszko, just making the distinction.

Although if you do want to fly in a Natonal Park, you should first check with the local rangers because sadly, some National Parks have restrictions on drones while others don’t allow drones to be flown at all.

The sky’s the limit – well, up to 120 metres.

3. Day flights only folks

Even if your drone has sweet LED’s where it’s probably way more visible and safer at night, unfortunately this not allowed. Jury is out as to whether some amazing sunset drone photography is allowed, just get down before it’s nightfall.

4. 30-metre person perimeter

Stay on the lookout for others because you are not to fly within 30 metres of a person not directly associate with your flight.

5. No flying in a ‘prohibited area’

This rule is about as grey as the audience at an Andre Rieu concert. Let’s try to explain it as simply a possible. The Civil Aviation Safety Regulations tell us that the details of prohibited and restricted areas are published in the AIP or NOTAM. If you’re not a pilot, you’re probably thinking “NAA” i.e. Not Another Acronym!!!

At the risk of another acronym: FYI, the AIP = the Aeronautical Information Package, provided by Airservies Australia; and NOTAM = Notice to Airmen (I’d prefer NOTAP – “People”, because both men and women fly too!)

You can get some more information on AIP’s here.

As to NOTAM’s, check out this site

This stuff gets pretty technical so it may be worth getting some training and/or guidance if you are unsure.

6. No play in the RA

RA is another acronym for ‘Restricted Area’ and they are numbered RA3, RA2 and RA1 where the number refers to the types of restricted area. RA1 is the least restrictive, whereas RA3 covers hardcore no-go zones, think military airspace.

This means that you can’t fly in any of these UNLESS you have the permission of the authority controlling the area.

Again, this stuff gets pretty technical so it may be worth getting some training and/or guidance. One way to help you avoid inadvertently flying over the Lucas Heights Nuclear Reactor is to check out CASA’s ‘Can I Fly There?’ App.

7. Thou Shalt Not Fly in a Populous Area…Popu-what?

If you haven’t come across the word ‘populous’ before, join the club. Populous is of Latin origin meaning ‘people’. So…don’t fly over the people? Well, pretty much.

While ‘populous’ isn’t an acronym, it’s nonetheless another confusing concept to add to the list. Ok, let’s try to wrap our heads around this.

The definition of ‘populous’ in the Civil Aviation Safety Regulations is, to be frank, bloody confusing. Let’s use the quote credited to Einstein – “Everything should be made as simple as possible, but not Simpler” The definition in its complete glory can be accessed here.

In short, a populous area is an area where there are enough people around where if your drone conks out it would pose an unreasonable risk to life, safety or property of someone in the area not connected to your flying. CASA gives some examples of populous areas such as as festivals, sporting ovals, busy beaches, busy roads and footpaths.

8. Do not fly within 3 nautical miles of the movement area of a controlled aerodrome

That’s a mouthful. Lets unpack it like the lunch you could have made in the time spent processing that sentence.

Nautical miles may be a bit of a foreign measurement if you’re not a seafarer or fly planes. To put it in a non-pirate terms, it’s about 5.556 kilometres.

Notably, it applies only to controlled aerodromes, not those out-of-control ones. I joke. The distinction is actually between a controlled aerodrome and a non-controlled aerodrome.

The Airspace Regulations define a “controlled aerodrome” as an aerodrome to which a determination under paragraph 5(1)(e) applies (not helpful). Paragraph 5(1)(e) says that CASA may make a determination that an aerodrome is a controlled aerodrome (still not helpful)…welcome to the law, it’s like trying to find a specific needle in a stack of other needles!

However, if you squint your eyes and move further down the definitions section of the Airspace Regulations you see in fine print that a controlled aerodrome is defined again (more successfully this time) as an aerodrome at which air traffic control service is provided to aerodrome traffic – yay, a partial answer. As you can see, navigating the law is similar to navigating a quad copter with 3 busted motors, but less fun. Enough about my puzzling career choice, let’s crack on and make sense of this hoo-ha.

A non-controlled aerodrome is an aerodrome at which Air Traffic Control (ATC) is not operating. For example, an aerodrome that is always in Class G (uncontrolled) airspace, or an aerodrome with a control tower where no ATC service is currently provided, or an aerodrome that would normally have ATC services but such services are temporarily unavailable.

So in a nutshell, or even smaller – an economy class seat on Tiger – the 5.556k prohibition only applies to aerodromes where there is Air Traffic Control operating. However, (there’s always a however) be wary of non-controlled aerodromes.

9. If the cops or fire brigade are there, you probably shouldn’t be flying over it.

This also goes for situations where any “other public safety or emergency operation is being conducted”. One risk is that there may be police or fire fighting helicopters and if you’re getting some sweet shots of the action with your drone, you may be preventing them from resolving the incident.

Don’t go from checking the incident to being the incident.

However, you may be able to check it out by air if you get the approval of a person in charge of the operation.

10. Drone monogamy

As much fun as it would be to send out an army of drones “Fly my pretties!!!!!” I’m sorry to say this is not on. You are only allowed to pilot one drone at a time.

Concluding comments

I hope you got some value out of this and don’t just feel berated.

You can now say, I’m off to fly my RPA under 120 metres AGL but first I will check the NOTAMs so I’m not flying in an RA or within 5k’s of an aerodrome with an ATC and while I’d love to use my FPV goggles, I better not.

Also, please note that none of the above is legal advice and you rely on any of the above at your own risk. If you do want some legal advice as to how the above may apply to your next flight, please be in touch here.

Finally, Parliament is currently reviewing the laws on drones so some or all of the above may change soon. I’ll be watching it like a drone over a nudist beach, so either check back here in a few months, or be in contact and I’ll let you know all about any changes made by Parliament.

Fly Free!
The Drone Lawyer

5 April 2018