8 take-aways from the Australian Association for Unmanned Systems (AAUS) Conference on 17 & 18 July 2019.

Published: 21 July 2019

2 days, 8 sessions and over 25 speakers, the AAUS ‘RPAS in Australian Skies 2019’ conference was a cracker of an event with representatives from government, defence, multinationals, one-pilot bands, and everything in between. Despite the different interests, it all seemed to converge around building a safe, responsible and respected drone industry.

Appreciate that everyone took away something a little different. Nonetheless, here are my 8 take-aways from this event:

[1] Reps from the public aviation bodies flagged the introduction of drone-specific noise restrictions. Consultation on these will be coming in the next few months. Encouragingly, the view seemed to be that now is the time for the various aviation public bodies to coordinate efforts and get ahead of the game in an effort to more fully integrate drones into controlled and uncontrolled airspace. There seemed to be agreement that the lines between piloted and remotely-piloted operations will become blurred and that Air Traffic Management (ATM) and Unmanned Traffic Management (UTM) systems need to converge.

[2] CASA informed us that it has issued 11 Beyond Visual Line of Sight (BVLOS) approvals. It also provided guidance in distinguishing between ‘simple’, ‘moderate’, and ‘complex’ BVLOS operations. Standard scenarios are being released in August 2019 to assist with this and to facilitate more BVLOS approvals.

[3] Despite a current chasm between the idea and reality of Uber’s Air Taxi concept in Melbourne, investments opportunities in heli-pad style landing/take-off pads for Vertical Take-Off and Landing aircraft (VTOL) are available now. 15 years is the estimate by when this could be a thing. While the air taxis will not initially be drones – because they will be piloted – the plan is to eventually remove the pilot, and thereby become a drone.

[4] There was discussion about the need for better training and education of all drone pilots. Similar to any segment anywhere, it is the few uninformed or maverick players that can ruin it for anyone. Moreover, there were views expressed as to the quality of training and assessment of RePL applicants. To adopt a George Orwell phrase: ‘all RePL holders are equal, but some are more equal’. An accreditation process – in addition to CASA certification – was floated as one answer to separate the wheat remote pilots from the chaff remote pilots.

[5] The conference went pretty deep for a moment when the professional culture of drone operators was discussed. The question asked of everyone was: ‘are we aviators?’ This wasn’t a technical question (because technically the answer is ‘yes’); but rather a philosophical one. Whether one is an ‘aviator’ is a choice, and making this choice means that drone operators should hold themselves to the requisite standard of what it means to be an ‘aviator’. The Australian aviation sector is renowned for its safety and integrity, and if drone pilots want to share the sky, they too should hold themselves to this high level.

[6] If our brains weren’t sore after reflecting about our professional obligations to the welfare and longevity of the drone industry, then they were about to sprint a marathon when it was explained how blockchain technology could be applied to Unmanned Traffic Management. Mind. Blown.

[7] Various other technologies were presented, including our Kiwi cousins’ app which allows drone flight mapping and airspace restrictions; camera software which could give a precious 26 second window before potential impact, a global drone reporting platform which produces reports to assist authorities in tracking down illegal operations; the application of ADS-B location technology to drones; and some locally made drones which offer options outside the international manufacturers.

[8] While Australia’s drone regulations are relatively advanced, the fact that they haven’t been tested in Court (meaning no real precedent yet) means uncertainty as to how they might apply upon challenge in Court. While NO drone operator wants to be ‘the test case’ or ‘first cab-off-the-rank’, once this does happen, more certainty around the drone regulations can be established. Moreover, CASA approval of a drone operation does not mean immunity should an accident or regulatory breach occur during such operation. Also, it was indicated that in general, flying over someone else’s private land, provided neither the pilot nor the drone touched the land, and that it is not constant, generally does not require the land owner’s consent, and the land owner is unlikely to have any clear right of recourse against the pilot. This should NOT be taken as a given and any pilot should get advice before operating over any land where there might be a legal difficulty.

In conclusion, while there are some inevitable challenges, a combination of rapid technological developments and the recognition that it is up to the players to forge a good reputation for the industry, overall the sky ahead for the drone industry is blue.

Fly Free!

The Drone Lawyer

21 July 2019