The use of drones in Australia is increasing fast and the law needs to keep pace with the ever expanding use of this form of technology.
Under Australian law, drones are formally known as Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs).
The rules relating to the use of UAVs largely depend on the weight of the UAV and whether it is used for commercial purposes. Any UAV that is used for commercial purposes needs to be registered with the Civil Aviation Safety Authority. Also, the controller needs to have been issued with a UAV Controller’s Certificate.
A recent article by Choice magazine suggests that in 2013 there were 34 commercial UAV operators in Australia. At the time the article was published earlier this year, that number had increased to 507. The article suggests that, in Australia, UAVs are used by law enforcement agencies, science agencies such as the CSIRO, media groups and animal rights activists, just to name a few.
Drones are also becoming more popular amongst members of the general public and they are now available for retail purchase. Members of the public who use a UAV for recreational purposes are still subject to a series of regulations that set out limits on the use of the drone. These rules include limiting the height at which a UAV can be flown in most areas to a maximum of 121 m, generally preventing a UAV from being flown within 30 m of people not associated with its use and preventing a UAV being flown over groups of people except at a safe height. Other rules also prevent UAVs being flown within certain distances of airfields and other high security areas.
As well as the safety issues that these regulations are designed to control, the ever-increasing use of UAV’s is bound to lead to other legal issues being raised. One of the most obvious issues is the potential invasion of privacy if a drone is used to monitor and record activities that are conducted on private property. At the moment there is no legislation that applies specifically to drones being used in this way. Current Privacy legislation applies only to larger organisations and so it will not be relevant unless the drone is being operated by an organisation caught by those laws.
In any other circumstance people who feel that they are being harassed by another person using a UAV or are having their privacy invaded, would need to resort to more general areas of the law such as actions for trespass to property or AVO legislation in an attempt to protect their rights.
The article published by Choice magazine notes a few amusing incidents involving the use of recreational drones. For example, it cites an incident in 2013 where a recreational UAV crashed into the Sydney Harbour Bridge leading to the operator being fined $850.00. It also notes an incident in February this year where a recreational UAV crashed during a ceremony at the Australian War Memorial in Canberra.
The article quotes the Civil Aviation Safety Authority’s manager of corporate communications as suggesting that the personal use of UAVs has not yet become a “public menace”. However, it is acknowledged that more safety incidents involving UAVs were being reported. There are plans in place to review the regulations that cover the recreational use of UAVs.
At times, the law can be slow to keep up with new developments in technology. Clearly, the legal implications of the use of UAV’s will continue to expand. Anyone who finds themselves faced with a legal issue relating to the recreational use of a UAV would be well advised to seek legal advice.