5 technologies applied to drones & their legal implications in 5 days. Day 3: Drone Autonomy

Published: 18 September 2019


Autonomy is one the technologies taking drones from the equivalent of ‘cottage industry’ to ‘factory‘ in terms of advancement. Here is a rundown as to what autonomy entails, where it is being applied, and some of the law regulating this technology as applied to drones.

What exactly…

– The International Civil Aviation Organization, which is a United Nations Specalised agency, defines autonomous aircraft as: An unmanned aircraft that does not allow pilot intervention in the management of the flight.

This definition is also adopted by the Joint Authorities for Rulemaking on Unmanned Systems  (JARUS). This is a group of National and Regional Aviation Authorities from 59 countries whose purpose is to provide guidance material and recommend a single set of technical, safety and operational requirements for the integration of drones into airspace.

– While the above definition seems to refer to full autonomy, drone autonomy is better understood as a spectrum. One theory is that there are 5 levels of drone autonomy.

Levels of drone autonomy

Level 0: No autonomy – the drone is 100% manually controlled by the pilot.

Level 1: Low autonomy – pilot remains in control. The drone has control of a least one vital function.

Level 2: Partial autonomy – pilot remains responsible for the safe operation. The drone can take over direction and altitude under certain conditions.

Level 3: Conditional autonomy – pilot acts as a fall-back system. The drone can perform all functions given certain conditions.

Level 4: High autonomy – pilot is out of the loop. The drone has backup systems so that if one fails, the platform will still be operational.

Level 5: Full autonomy – drone uses Artificial Intelligence tools to plan the flight as an autonomous learning system.

Autonomy applied

– In respect of where we are in Australia on this spectrum in real life, a good current example is the Wing project in Canberra. CASA has approved Wing Aviation Pty Ltd to operate ongoing delivery drone operations in North Canberra.

– This includes, amongst other things, the delivery of donuts, coffee and even golf balls to people’s homes by drone. This is happening right now.

– CASA has stated that the system is automated, however a licensed drone pilot is always at the helm.

– On the above mentioned spectrum, we seem to be at about Level 3 or perhaps even 4 of our 5-stage autonomy model.

– Wing is now in the process of launching in the Brisbane suburb of Logan.

Legalities on complex drone operations

– In general, the Civil Aviation Safety Regulations do not allow flights beyond visual line of sight of the pilot; prescribe that person must not operate a drone within 30 metres of another person who is not directly associated with the operation of that drone; and typically only allow a drone pilot to fly one drone at a time.

– Wing’s operation does all of these. So, how is Wing legally doing this? Wing was required to submit a safety case to CASA to satisfy CASA that their operation meets an acceptable level of safety, and to obtain waivers or exemptions from those general prohibitions.

– For you to do this, and speaking at a high-level, first, you need a Remote Pilot Licence and RPA Operators Certificate. To operate a drone Beyond Visual line of sight in Australia you must hold an unrestricted Remote Pilot’s Licence.

– Then, if you want to conduct any complex drone operation outside of the Standard Operating Conditions set out in section 101.238 of the Civil Aviation Safety Regulations, you need to put forward a safety. CASA recommends using the SORA model.

– SORA stands for Specific Operations Risk Assessment and is a 10-step risk assessment process. The SORA allows regulators and operators to think about and address risks, and to then mitigate or address such risks through evidence in order to produce a safety case.

– CASA conducts 2-day SORA workshops to assist drone operators who want to conduct complex operations, but this will set you back about $4,500.

– We have discovered through FOI requests, that Wing’s safety case and associated documents to CASA for the Canberra operation is over 200 pages in length (more in this coming soon).


The take-away from this is that if you want to commence autonomous drone operations, or other complex drone operations, there are significant regulatory hurdles to jump. While not insurmountable, it will be a time-consuming, lengthy and relatively costly exercise, so be prepared. We are currently in the process of seeking access to documents to make this process easier for all drone pilots.

We hope Day 3 of our 5 day series on drone technology was of assistance. A link to our Day 1 topic: Counter-drone technology can be accessed here; and our Day 2 topic: ADS-B can be accessed here.

Fly Free!

The Drone Lawyer

18 September 2019