Published: 20 December 2018

With Christmas at our doorstep and drones looking to be one of the most popular presents once again, even Santa has ditched his reindeer for a fleet of drones. So whether you’re Santa or Santana, here are 10 tips to think about when flying your drone this festive season.

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 flying. That unfortunately also means you’re generally not allowed to use those awesome First Person View (FPV) immersive goggles unless you join a club authorised by the Civil Aviation Safety Authority (CASA).

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 National 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 is 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 Airservices 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 (NM) 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. The distinction is actually between a controlled aerodrome and a non-controlled aerodrome.

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.

You are not allowed to fly within 5.55k kilometres of a non-controlled  aerodrome IF there is a manned aircraft operating to or from the aerodrome. If you become aware of a manned aircraft in the vicinity, you must  not commence a flight and must land if your drone is already in flight. Once the manned aircraft has landed or departed, you may be able to continue flying.

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, keeping in mind all the above rules.

10. Drone monogamy

As much fun as it would be to send out an army of drones and do an Intel-style swarm show, I’m sorry to say this is not on. You are only allowed to fly one drone at a time.

Concluding comments

I hope you took 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 3NM 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

20 December 2018