Eager to test out your new drone?
Here’s our guide to flying without getting fined:
If you’re a new drone owner trying to navigate a maze of contradictory advice online to figure out where and when it’s safe to fly, you may be surprised to learn that Australia has some of the most supportive and drone-friendly laws in the world.
A lot of this is thanks to the open-minded attitude towards drones taken by Australia’s Civil Aviation Safety Authority (CASA) – unlike in some other countries, Australians don’t need a licence or official approval to take to the skies; you just have to make sure you’re not breaching CASA’s drone safety rules which are designed to protect other people in the air and on the ground.
With that in mind, here’s our guide to the current rules and regulations governing flying drones in Australia. By keeping these few things in mind, you can easily fly with confidence (and not risk a $9,000 fine).
Drones & Australian Law: What Are The Rules?
Australia’s recreational drone safety rules have been around since 2002 and apply to ‘model aircraft’, which CASA defines as those used for sport or recreational purposes, weighing 150kg or less and not operated for commercial use. In a nutshell, here’s what they involve:
- Keep the drone in your line of sight at all times, which means flying only in daylight and navigating it with your own eyes (not a screen, binoculars or goggles) Avoid flying in foggy or cloudy conditions. You can fly up to 120 metres (400 ft) above the ground; if you want to fly higher, you have to apply directly with CASA to do so.
- First-Person View (FPV) setups, which allow uses to fly using googles and a camera, are technically illegal in Australia unless you’re part of an approved model aircraft association. You can find more information about the dos and don’ts of First-Person Flying in our Beginner’s Guide to FPV article.
- When flying your drone, keep it at least 30 metres away from people; the exception to this is if the other person is part of controlling or navigating the drone.
- You are not permitted to fly your drone over or near an area affecting public safety or where emergency operations are in progress (without prior approval) — this includes situations such as a car crashes, police operations, fire and associated fire-fighting efforts, and search and rescue operations
- Avoid flying your drone over or above people, this means not piloting your drone above areas such as populated beaches, footpaths, busy roads, parks, festivals, or sporting arenas where a game is on. It’s wise to respect personal privacy and refrain from recording or photographing people without their consent; otherwise you might be breaching state laws.
- You can only fly one drone at a time and if your drone weighs more than 100g, you must keep at least 5.5 km away from ‘controlled aerodromes’ or airports. You’re allowed to fly within 5.5km of a non-controlled aerodrome or helicopter-landing site only if manned aircraft aren’t operating to or from the aerodrome. If you notice manned aircraft operating to or from these areas, you have to manoeuvre away from the aircraft and land as soon and as safely as possible.
What else do I need to know?
It’s always worth checking laws in your state before flying. State-based environmental laws do not allow drones from flying within 300 metres of marine m
ammals — including dolphins and whales; the fines are hefty, ranging from $300 to $110,000. Keep in mind also that birds of prey, such as eagles, hawks and falcons don’t react well to a drone buzzing nearby.
There are specific rules around flying drones in national parks depending on the state, for example, Queensland laws are fairly relaxed for recreational drones under 2kg, but in South Australia, drones have been added to the list of remote-controlled aircraft that can’t be flown in a national park without a scientific research or commercial filming permit. For this reason it is worth researching the rules of national parks in your state.
Some local councils have made regulations banning drones in particular public places. If you want to fly over famous landmarks it is worth checking whether you’re allowed to first, for example, you cannot fly above the Twelve Apostles, as they’re within one of Victoria’s National Marine Parks; but you are able to pilot a drone above the Daintree Rainforest (while respecting wildlife and locals).
Special Drone Zones
On the other hand, Brisbane City Council recently launched ten designated ‘drone zones’ allowing people to recreationally fly drones at designated parks around the city. You can find out more in our article about the announcement here: ‘Approved Drone Zones’ – An Australian First.
Along with following CASA and local council regulations, common sense is essential to piloting a drone. The golden rule is: A person must not operate an unmanned aircraft in a way that creates a hazard to another aircraft, another person, or property. Remember that if your battery shows any signs of leaking, discolouring, bulging or deforming — replace it to avoid a battery fire.
Flying for commercial purposes
If flying for economic gain, you may need to be licensed and certified as an operator, or work for a certified operator. Commercial operators flying a drone weighing under 2kg, might fall under CASA’s ‘excluded’ category — this requires notifying CASA before you fly and operating within the standard operating conditions. To fly outside of the standard operating conditions, you need to be licensed and certified; a remote pilot licence (RePL) is the required individual permission to fly.
Clarification of CASA’s rules for recreational and commercial drones can be followed up here.
What are the possible ramifications for defying CASA’s rules?
According to The ABC an average of 15 people per year are prosecuted by CASA for dangerous flying. Here’s a few of the latest examples:
- Attempting to capture footage of an Ed Sheeran gig earlier this year, a Brisbane man was fined $1,050 for flying his drone at low-altitude over Sheeran’s Brisbane show at the Suncorp Stadium. The drone was flown at night, in a populated area, within 30 metres of people and beyond the line of sight.
- In New South Wales a drone flown by a guest of the wedding of media personalities Sylvia Jeffreys and Peter Stefanovic was hit with a $900 fine for a ‘hazardous flight’ in which they took sprawling footage of the celebration at Kangaroo Valley.
- In Melbourne, a drone user copped a $1,000 fine for crashing it into the Eureka Tower. He was trying to get footage of the sunrise but the aircraft went behind the tower and lost contact with its controller.
- No fine was given, but a strong warning was issued to a man from Cessnock for taking footage of a bushfire in the Hunter region. If the Regional Fire Fighting Service crew had of known about it earlier than they did, they would have grounded their helicopters. Fire fighters have to stop fighting the fire while a drone is in the air, to avoid risking mid-air collisions.
- And of course, in a story that would define our nation, a Sunbury resident was fined $900 (the fine was initially quoted at $9,000) for using his drone to pick up a sausage from Bunnings: an incident resulting in the most expensive sausage sizzle purchase in Australia. While his intent was pure, he breached several CASA rules in his efforts.
What kind of fines could you face?
Most fines seem to have cost their pilot between $900 and $1,100, but defying CASA’s rules could see you face a $9,000 fine or even possible jail time depending on the severity of the offence. A few of the cases above were posted on social media by the drone pilot; while social media technically isn’t evidence enough to prosecute, CASA has warned drone users they will use social media to assist in prosecuting illegal activity.
I personally know of several cases where fines have been issued based on images posted in a drone owners Instagram account – with a fine being levied per post. So take these cases as strong incentive to stay within CASA’s guidelines and out of the news headlines.
Hopefully this article’s helped explain the basics of what is and isn’t allowed when recreationally flying your drone inside Australian airspace. If you’ve enjoyed it, you’re welcome to subscribe to our newsletter for more drone related guides and info, or if you’re ready to take things up a notch, check out our Best Drones Under $200 Buying Guide for some information on our highest-rated starter drones of 2018.