The Australian Government continues to wrestle with the regulatory challenges posed by emerging aviation technologies such as drones. The last six months have seen the long-foreshadowed introduction of a drone registration scheme and some early steps towards the development of a national holistic policy governing the use and operation of drones.
Introduction of a mandatory drone registration scheme in Australia. It formed part of a suite of recommendations made in the Australian Senate Inquiry report into the current and future regulatory framework for drones released in July 2018. Amendments to Australia’s drone regulations to bring about that change were made in 2019 but implementation of the scheme was delayed.
From 28 January 2021, all drones operated commercially (i.e. flown for business or as part of your job) regardless of size must be registered online through the myCASA portal. Fines apply for non-compliance. In addition, all commercial drone operators are now required to hold either a remote pilot licence or an operator accreditation. The latter category requires completion of an online safety course.
Registration of recreational drones is not required yet but is expected to be phased in from March 2022.
The new registration scheme aligns Australia with other key global jurisdictions, including the US and the UK where compulsory registration requirements for drones (other than very small drones) have been in force for some time. The scheme is expected to address, at least partly, critical safety concerns arising from the continued growth of drone use in Australia, namely:
One of the other key recommendations from the 2018 Senate Inquiry report was the push for a coordinated ‘whole of government’ approach to the regulation of drones in Australia. This was intended to address a growing concern about inconsistencies and gaps in Australia’s legislative framework at a state and federal level.
The Government has taken its first, albeit modest, step towards implementing such a plan through the publication of an issues paper in September 2020 (Issues Paper) (1). The Issues Paper looks beyond just the traditional (but, quite obviously, critical) focus on ‘safety’. It also addresses other issues widely viewed by industry participants as vital to the successful management of drones into the future. They include:
Submissions from the public and industry in response to the Issues Paper were received in late 2020. Further consultation is expected during the remainder of this year before the Government announces any firm next steps.
The challenges posed by the evolving drone industry clearly remain a key focus for Australia’s aviation regulators. The implementation of a mandatory registration scheme is one that has been broadly welcomed by the industry. The Issues Paper is also a positive demonstration of the Government’s intentions in this area. However, it is not without questions. The lack of a considered assessment of the need for compulsory liability insurance in the context of commercial drone operations is surprising, particularly given the approach taken in other jurisdictions such as the European Union. There also remains the underlying concern about whether, practically, the planned national policy can be developed in a timely way, and thereafter remain nimble enough to move with the inevitable rapid technology advancements.
(1) Australian Government, Department of Infrastructure, Transport, Regional Development and Communications, Emerging Aviation Technologies National Aviation Policy Issues Paper, September 2020.