According to Australia’s national aviation authority, Australia’s Civil Aviation Safety Authority (CASA), flying a drone is legal in Australia, but we recommend being aware of and compliant with the drone regulations listed below before doing so.
You must only fly during the day and keep your drone within visual line-of-sight. This means being able to see the aircraft with your own eyes (rather than through a device) at all times.
You must not fly your drone higher than 120 meters (400ft) above the ground.
You must keep your drone at least 30 meters away from other people.
You must not fly your UAV over or near an area affecting public safety or where emergency operations are underway (without prior approval). This could include situations such as a car crash, police operations, a fire and associated firefighting efforts, and search and rescue.
You must only fly one UAV at a time.
You must not fly over or above people. This could include beaches, parks, events, or sport ovals where there is a game in progress.
If your drone weighs more than 250g, you must keep at least 5.5km away from controlled aerodromes.
Respect personal privacy. Don’t record or photograph people without their consent—this may breach state laws.
If you fly a drone (remotely piloted aircraft) RPA under 2kg but for commercial reasons, you can fly your drone in what is called the ‘excluded’ category. This means you need to notify the CASA before you fly and operate within the standard operating conditions.
If you want to fly outside these operating conditions, you will need to be licensed (hold a remote pilot’s licence RePL) and fly with a certified operator to fly commercially.
Overall, Australia’s drone laws include no flying:
That creates a hazard to aircraft, people or property
At any height within 3nm of a runway, taxiway or apron of a controlled aerodrome (an airport with a control tower, such as Sydney Airport).
Within 3nm of the movement area of a non-controlled aerodrome or helicopter landing site (an airport without a control tower) if you become aware of an aircraft using it.
Within an approach or departure path of an aerodrome or helicopter landing site (discussed below)
Within a prohibited or restricted area
Above 400 feet (120 metres) above ground level
Beyond your visual line of sight
At night or into cloud
Near emergency services operations
Within 30 metres of another person, or above them.
Over a populous area
Whether you agree or not with the legislation, drones (not matter the size or use) are considered as “aircraft” as per Australia’s Civil Aviation Act. The Act defines aircraft as “any machine or craft that can derive support in the atmosphere from the reactions of the air, other than the reactions of the air against the earth’s surface”. Thus, all drones are governed by the regulations set out by CASA (the Civil Aviation Safety Authority). Most of the legislation that affects drones is provided in Civil Aviation Safety Regulation (CASR) Part 101. The major rules are:
1. Don’t create a hazard to others
The legislation explains “a person must not operate an unmanned aircraft in a way that creates a hazard to another aircraft, or another person, or property”. Even if your flying is not going to break any of the following rules, you must still ensure you don’t create a hazard.
2. No flying within 3nm (5.5km) of a controlled aerodrome
This relates to an aerodrome where the control tower is “active” (currently being used). A person must not operate an unmanned aircraft within 3nm (5.5km) of the movement area of a controlled aerodrome.
But what is the movement area? It’s not the middle of the airport, nor just the runway. “The movement area, in relation to an aerodrome, means any part that is used for the surface movement of aircraft, including manoeuvring area and aprons. A manoeuvring area means any part that is used for the take-off and landing of aircraft and for the movement of aircraft in association with take-off and landing i.e. taxiways.”
This rule does not apply to micro RPA (100 grams or less) or RPA being flown by a certified operator.
3. Be cautious when flying within 3nm (5.5km) of a non-controlled aerodrome (or helipad)
A non-controlled aerodrome means a place that is a helicopter landing site not located at a controlled aerodrome; or an aerodrome that is not a controlled airport. In plain English – an airport that does not have a control tower. A person must not launch an unmanned aircraft within 3nm (5.5km) of the movement area of a non-controlled aerodrome if the person is aware that a manned aircraft (aeroplane, helicopter etc.) is operating to or from the aerodrome. What does “aware” mean? According to CASA, awareness is taken to exist where “a reasonable person ought to have been aware that a manned aircraft is operating to or from the aerodrome”. If operating with 3nm of the movement area of a non-controlled aerodrome, and you become aware that an aircraft is operating there, you must immediately manoeuvre safely away from the path of the manned aircraft and land as soon as safely possible. This rule does not apply to micro RPA (100 grams or less) or RPA being flown by a certified operator.
4. Don’t fly in an approach or departure path
CASA has provided guidance for how to avoid approach an departure paths at non-controlled aerodromes and helicopter sites. The following diagrams are from CASA’s advisory circulars.
5. Don’t fly in restricted areas
Unless approved by the authority controlling the area, you cannot fly an unmanned aircraft in a “restricted” or “prohibited” area. These are areas of airspace in which a potential hazard to aircraft exists, therefore the operational of civilian aircraft (including drones) is restricted. It is very difficult for recreational drone operators to identify these areas, but apps such as “Can I Fly There?” and “RWY Check” may help. However, restricted areas are generally around military bases/ranges and high-risk facilities such as Lucas Heights in south-west Sydney. Unfortunately, Sydney Harbour is also a restricted area – you cannot fly over the harbour unless approved by CASA. This is due to the large number of floatplanes and helicopters that operate in the area. Sorry to ruin your travel plans.
6. No flight above 400 feet (120 metres)
You cannot fly your drone more than 400 feet above ground level unless approved by CASA. Imagine a piece of string that is 400 feet long and tied to your RPA. The bottom of the string must be touching the ground at all times.
7. You must keep your drone within “visual line of sight”
The legislation explains “an unmanned aircraft is being operated within the visual line of sight of the person operating the aircraft if the person can continually see, orient and navigate the aircraft to meet the person’s separation and collision avoidance responsibilities, with or without corrective lenses, but without the use of binoculars, a telescope or other similar device”. Notice nothing is mentioned about looking at the screen of a tablet, or using first person view (FPV) goggles? You must see, orient and navigate with your own eyeballs. The limitations of the human eye make it impossible to do if you fly your drone more than one kilometre from you. We’ll discuss the use of FPV soon.
8. You cannot operate your drone at night (the time between civil dusk and dawn), and you cannot fly into cloud (this includes fog!).
9. No flying near emergency services operations
Previously, the legislation only prevented “Excluded” RPA (i.e. sub-2kg operators) from operating near emergency operations (but all other RPA had no such legislative restrictions). Now all unmanned aircraft are required to stay clear (that’s everyone – model aircraft, Excluded RPA, and ReOC holders).
An unmanned aircraft must not operate over an area where a fire, police or other public safety or emergency operation is being conducted. This rule does not apply if the person in charge of the emergency operation approves the operation of the unmanned aircraft.
10. You cannot fly within 30 metres of another person
A person controlling an RPA must ensure that the aircraft is not operated less than 30m from a person unless the person has duties essential to the control of navigation of the aircraft. This includes your own family – the legislation doesn’t permit you to get their consent as a means to fly closer.
A new explanation from CASA is “the distance of 30m is measured in every direction from the point on the ground directly below the aircraft”.
Imagine a person standing in the middle of a cylinder that extends in a 30m radius from them, and stretches up to the sky – you cannot fly within this cylinder (no more flying overhead people at any height).
This does not apply if an authorisation or exemption is granted by the CASA via the CASRs (such as an authorisation in your operations manual allowing you to fly within 30m of someone). Another person just can’t give you permission to fly in close proximity – CASA must provide the authorisation.
There is no weight mentioned in this direction from CASA, meaning even micro RPA (weighing 100 grams or less) must be kept at least 30m from people. However, you are not required to follow this rule if operating a recreational drone (model aircraft) indoors. Therefore, you can fly within 30 metres of someone if inside (just don’t create a hazard – be safe!).
11. No flying over “populous areas”
When considering drone operations over populated areas, the safety of people and property below is paramount. The term ‘populous area’ is regularly used in the legislation, with the definition being:
“An area is a populous area in relation to the operation of an unmanned aircraft or rocket if the area has a sufficient density of population for some aspect of the operation, or some event that might happen during the operation (in particular, a fault in, or failure of, the aircraft) to pose an unreasonable risk to the life, safety or property of somebody who is in the area but is not connected with the operation.”
It is important to note that it refers to posing an unreasonable risk to “life, safety or property of somebody”. Therefore, not only does the term populous area consider the possibility of a person becoming injured (or killed), it also considers the likelihood of damaging property, such as houses, cars and infrastructure.
Some might view this meaning as ambiguous, and different people may have different views on the meaning of phrases like “sufficient density of population” and “pose an unreasonable risk”. However, CASA has attempted to provide clarification of drone laws by providing further examples in their advisory circulars:
“If a rotorcraft-type RPA (drone) is flying at a relatively low height (i.e. 100 feet) directly above a single person not associated with the flight, it may be considered to be operating in a populous area due to the fact that a complete loss of power may cause injury to the person below. Similarly, an RPA (drone) operating over a large public gathering at a high level (i.e. 400 feet) would pose an unreasonable risk to the safety of the people below because, in the event of a systems failure, it may not be able to clear the area. This interpretation would apply equally to higher flight over built-up areas where there is a greater risk to property.”
While these clarification statements from CASA are guidance only (and are not law), it is strongly recommended you follow CASA’s advice to ensure you are complying with the drone laws. Most drones will not be able to glide clear of the area in the event of a failure. This can make it near impossible to operate in many built-up areas and still adhere to the populous area rule.
Can I fly using FPV (first person view) goggles?
FPV is not legal unless operating under a CASA exemptionThe emergence of quadcopters, first person view (FPV) headsets and improved live video technology has resulted in exciting new sports flying, such as drone racing. By wearing the FPV headset, the remote pilot is placed within their quadcopter’s virtual cockpit, giving them the exact view that would be seen from their aircraft. The pilot no longer uses direct visual line of sight as their primary means of controlling the drone, rather utilising a live video downlink from a camera fixed to the aircraft.
The limitation of this view is a loss of situational awareness as the pilot is no longer able to see their surrounding environment, and therefore cannot see possible safety threats, such as approaching members of the public. The ability to recover from an emergency situation, either due to pilot error or a systems failure, is also greatly diminished as the pilot may not be able to re-acquire the aircraft visually with sufficient speed to prevent a crash. Overall, wearing FPV headsets also does not allow the pilot to directly view their drone, which the visual line of sight rules discussed above.
So does FPV flying now become an illegal flying activity? Not quite – in some circumstances FPV flying is permitted, provided several conditions are met. At the time of this blog, CASA has provided exemption EX138/16 to allow the use of FPV technology. However, a number of strict conditions apply:
The exemption only applies to members of the Model Aeronautical Association of Australia (MAAA); and
The member must comply with the MAAA’s “First Person View (FPV) Policy” (MOP066)”. The MAAA’s policy provides many guidelines, including weight, distance and height limitations, approval from the land owner, the use of a second person as an observer, the deployment of race officials and helpers, and failsafe procedures.
Recreational drones are rising in number, and the rules around their use are well laid-out, for the most part. CASA has put together a handy quick-reference guide that breaks down all the flight regulations for new pilots.
But what if you’re on the receiving end of a drone’s gaze? It’s no secret that many recreational drones are equipped with cameras – and that people can be nosy. As it stands, your protection against unauthorised surveillance is limited.
The Privacy Act, for instance, only applies to organisations with an annual turnover of $3 million or more. Most recreational drone owners, it’s fair to say, wouldn’t meet that criteria.
So if you’re wondering whether you can legally spy on your neighbours or other persons of interest with a drone, the answer is currently unclear. Anti-stalking legislation may forbid such activity in some cases, and some legal experts say recording activity on private property would be illegal in most states. Others say there really are no hard and fast rules at the moment. In any case, there’s nothing encoded in law regarding recreational drones and privacy.
Unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) or drones must be registered with the FAA and your registration is valid for three years.
Source 2: https://remoteaviation.com.au/casa-drone-laws/
Source 3: https://www.choice.com.au/electronics-and-technology/gadgets/tech-gadgets/articles/drones-and-privacy-rights
Source 4: https://www.faa.gov/uas/