Danger zones: what are the rules on flying drones?

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Before they were jailed in Iran, an intrepid pair of travel vloggers from Cottlesloe wowed social media followers with breathtaking aerial vistas of their overland travels from Australia to the UK: Javanese volcanoes, the lakes of Flores, the jagged mountains of Pakistan.

Their footage was filmed with a camera drone, as are a great deal of travel video these days. It is illegal to fly a drone without a permit in Iran but Jolie King and Mark Firkin were unaware of this when, in July, they launched theirs to film an instalment of their trip from a highway just outside Tehran, near a military facility. Negotiations are ongoing for their release from Evin prison.

For better or worse, drones are increasingly making headlines.

A staple of modern warfare, they played a central role in recent attacks on Saudi Arabia oil-processing facilities with the Saudis claiming that a swarm of 10 drones had hit the plants.

In Australia, they have made headlines for quite different reasons, including larrikin stunts such as one involving a man fishing while suspended from a drone above a lake. Their potential is barely tapped: this summer will see the first national rollout of drones to help lifesavers spot sharks and swimmers in trouble. In Canberra, they are being trialled for delivering takeaway meals. Uber wants to use them as air taxis in the future.

What are drones exactly? Where did they come from? What are the rules on flying them here and overseas?


What's a drone?

Drones are also called UAVs or “unmanned aerial vehicles”, which gives you an idea of how broad a range of flying machines are referred to as drones. The name accounts for the whizzing or buzzing sound they make in flight.


The military end of the spectrum looks, to the civilian eye, like a plane. The ominously named Reaper model, described by former chief of staff of the US Air Force, General Moseley as a “hunter-killer”, can carry more than 1.5 tonnes of ordnance and can be operated from by a ground-based pilot on the other side of the world.

The more common civilian models are, essentially, quadrocopters – small aircraft with four rotors and a camera. These can range from a $10 kids' toy to commercially flown units with more rotors, bigger batteries and the ability to carry professional cameras or other payloads.


Above: Coalition Forces conduct a drone airstrike on an IS staging area in eastern Syria, January 4, 2019. Source: US Department of Defence

Where did drones come from?

After experiments dating back to World War I, it was during the Vietnam War that drones' reconnaissance capabilities were properly utilised. The US Air Force flew more than 3000 reconnaissance missions over North Vietnam during the war there. The Israeli Defence Forces developed the fixed-wing technology and longer range and used their "Scout" model in the 1982 war with Lebanon.


But it wasn’t until a few weeks after the September 11 attacks that the US made its first lethal use of a drone when a CIA Predator drone fired at a vehicle that had been carrying a Taliban leader, killing bodyguards but missing the leader. The strike, in October 2001, was from a base in Saudi Arabia, according to The Atlantic. Since then, the United States has carried out hundreds of strikes, mostly in Yemen, Pakistan and Somalia while other countries have weighed in with their own strikes.

The US Federal Aviation Administration issued its first commercial drone permit in 2006 and an average of two of these permits a year for the next eight years – that was all that was requested. In 2013, Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos announced that the company was considering using drones as a delivery method, igniting the public’s interest in drones. In 2015, the FAA issued 1000 drone permits, a number that tripled to 3100 permits in 2016 and that has continued to grow in the time since.

Graffiti denounces US drone strikes in Yemen, 2014.

Graffiti denounces US drone strikes in Yemen, 2014.Credit:Reuters


Who can fly a recreational drone in Australia?

Anyone, providing you stick to the standard operating conditions. There are no age limits for flying a drone at this stage, although this is under review.

If you want to fly a drone for commercial gain, and/or outside the standard operating conditions, you’ll need to obtain a licence to do so – unless the drone is under 2kg, or under 25kg if it’s only being flown on your own property.

The body that regulates drones, the Civil Aviation Safety Authority (CASA), is aiming to introduce registration for commercial drone certificate-holders next year. Recreational registration and accreditation will follow but remains a couple of years away. When registration is rolled out for recreational drone pilots, CASA is proposing a minimum age of 16.

What are the rules on flying a drone for fun?

Drone flight maps. Source: CASA/ OpenSky by Wing Aviation LLC


Most of the rules restrict where and when drones can be flown. What it all boils down to is that you must be able to see what you’re doing and not fly your drone where it could fall and hurt someone, damage something, intrude on privacy, or interfere with aircraft and emergency services.

  • You must not fly your drone more than 120m above the ground (about the height of a 35-storey building)
  • You must not fly your drone anywhere it could fail and fall, injuring a person or damaging property
  • You must not fly your drone within 30 metres of a person, at any height, at any time
  • You must not fly your drone in populous areas such as beaches, parks, roads, footpaths, or festivals and other crowded events
  • You can fly only one drone at a time
  • You must be able to see the drone with your own eyes at all times – not through another device
  • You can only fly your drone during the day, not in fog, and not behind trees or buildings that obscure it from view
  • You cannot fly your drone in prohibited or restricted airspace, or within 5.5 kilometres of a controlled aerodrome or airfield
  • You cannot fly your drone near emergency situations, including natural disasters or police operations

Above: A drone takes a man "fly" fishing in central Victoria in 2019.

How are the rules enforced?

People who breach the rules are usually identified via CASA inspectors, reports from the public (which can be submitted to CASA online) or investigations by police. Drone detection technology has also been rolled out across Australia, in places such as airports, known hot-spots (such as Sydney Harbour) and at major events. (It was also introduced at London's Gatwick Airport after drone sightings in December led to thousands of flights being cancelled while authorities scrambled, unsuccessfully, to find a culprit.) In Australia, the most severe drone-flying penalty, for an individual who flies a drone in a way that’s hazardous to other aircraft, is up to two years in prison and/or a fine of $25,200.


It was a very crazy experience and we put a lot of planning into it, a lot of time. We did lots of tests out in a paddock at the start.

People found in breach of other rules can be fined up to $1050 per offence and holders of a licence or certificate can receive further demerit-style points. If the matter goes to court (for failure to pay fines or in case of serious rule breaches), an individual could be convicted and/or fined up to $10,500 along with receiving demerits.

But infringements are rare. So far, none have been issued as a result of surveillance by authorities, although a CASA spokesman says a number of warnings have been issued. Infringements issued numbered just 63 in 2018, while the first six months of 2019 saw 26 penalty notices handed out.

CASA investigates cases where footage ends up on social media too. It is still looking into whether the use of the drone to go fishing above the Upper Coliban Reservoir in central Victoria breached regulations.

Sam Foreman, a carpenter from Kyneton, said the project was the brainchild of his electrician cousin Tim French but he had played the role of test dummy, with beer in hand, on August 17 when the video was shot in front of a few dozen friends and family.

"It was a very crazy experience and we put a lot of planning into it, a lot of time. We did lots of tests out in a paddock at the start. We couldn't test it with a person because we didn't want to take it out in public until it was actually ready to lift a person up," Foreman said.

In 2016, CASA slapped a $900 fine on a man who made news for a different stunt: he “sent” his drone from his backyard hot tub in Sunbury in Victoria to collect a sausage sizzle snag from his local Bunnings store. The fine was for failing to keep a model aircraft away from people; the maximum court penalty was $9000. (His local council also saw the video and, incidentally, required him to put a safety fence around his hot tub.)

Above: From backyard to Bunnings for what turned out to be a $900 snag.

Where can’t you fly drones overseas?

Drones are particularly frowned upon in some parts of the world. In Iran, for example, unauthorised use of drones is one of many actions that are illegal (being in a de facto relationship is another one), warns the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade on its Smart Traveller website. It also warns that any photography outside tourist areas in Iran may attract the attention of authorities.

In Cambodia, “it is illegal to fly drones in Phnom Penh, Angkor Archaeological Park in Siem Reap or other sensitive areas, unless prior approval is received from the local municipality”. Australian filmmaker James Ricketson endured more than a year in a Cambodian prison following his arrest for flying a drone over a political rally without permission in 2017. Sentenced to six years in jail for gathering information that might affect national security, he received a royal pardon in 2018.

Travellers should get permission to bring a drone into Morocco and any drone in your luggage will be confiscated on arrival in Egypt.

In Myanmar, customs officials are “particularly sensitive” about communications equipment such as drones, says DFAT. Two Reuters journalists spent more than 18 months behind bars after flying a drone over parliament, which was deemed illegal under 1930s anti-aircraft laws.

Travellers should get permission to bring a drone into Morocco, says DFAT, and any drone in your luggage will be confiscated on arrival in Egypt.

Even in war zones, where you might imagine drones would go with the territory, flying a camera drone can get you shot, says veteran Age and Sydney Morning Herald photographer Kate Geraghty, who has seen drones used in combat since she reported in Lebanon in 2006. There, she says, “we would drive with the windows down so we could hear drones more easily and leave the area if they dropped weapons.”

Above: A surf life-saving drone performs a world-first rescue at Lennox Head in New South Wales, January 2018. Source: Little Ripper Lifesaver

What are drones good for?

It depends on your point of view. Some US prisons are now using drones to keep an eye on inmates after resisting having drones anywhere near jails because inmates use them to smuggle in contraband, from wire-cutters to steroids. Prisons in Australia have gone into lockdown because drones were seen buzzing over them; many states, including NSW and Victoria, have now made it illegal to fly drones near jails.

On the US-Mexico border, drones are part of the toolkit for Mexican drug cartels who use them to spot weaknesses in law enforcement patrols, The Washington Post has reported. And, in January, a 25-year-old man was sentenced to 12 years in prison for flying a drone carrying a bag of methamphetamine over a checkpoint at Tijuana.

What streaming drama series doesn’t include an aerial sweep of a bleak forest, endless desert or urban sprawl?

Despite the pitfalls, drones have less nefarious uses, not least democratising film-making and pushing its creative limits.

Orson Welles may turn in his grave at the prospect but a high-end drone, with all it’s intuitive, motion-tracking gizmos, would make short work of a once-challenging and expensive piece of cinematography. Think of the sumptuous, uninterrupted tracking shot that opened Touch of Evil; or Fred Zinnemann’s crane shot gliding upwards to show Gary Cooper as a sheriff alone on a deserted street in High Noon.

And just as seasoned viewers begin to experience “drone fatigue” – what streaming drama series doesn’t include an aerial sweep of a bleak forest, endless desert or urban sprawl? – drone film techniques become ever more elaborate, with shots from drones replacing shots from helicopters in The Wolf of Wall Street, seen below, and recent Bond movies.

Above: A drone shot from the movie The Wolf of Wall Street.

The possibilities offered by drones are particularly pertinent in a big country such as Australia. The Royal Flying Doctor Service, which flew 7.7 million kilometres over the 2017-18 financial year, is actively pursuing drone technology not only to deliver life-saving medicine and equipment but to scope potential runways and landing areas. And last summer was the first to see a national rollout of purpose-built rescue drones to surf lifesaving clubs, with more than 50 clubs part of a program to add "eyes in the sky" at patrolled beaches.

Pubic acceptance of pilot-free taxis would be contingent on millions of incident-free flying kilometres.

On farms, drones are being used for a range of purposes, the ABC's Landline has reported, from targeting weeds with insecticide to protecting sheep stock from wild dogs using military-grade drones with thermal imaging to deliver bait.

For our cities, Uber has pitched an Uber Air service of flying taxis, which it had slated to start in 2023. But a report by global management consulting firm LEK Consulting in September said that a mass rollout was "unlikely in the next 10-15 years due to infrastructure challenges and delay in delivering a fully autonomous service." Pubic acceptance of pilot-free taxis would be "contingent on millions of incident-free flying kilometres to match the safety standards of other passenger aircraft,” said LEK principal Natasha Santha.

Above: Chinese company EHANG also wants to use drones such as this for taxis. Source: EHANG

A Canberra trial of drone deliveries is perhaps the world's most current "real-world" litmus test for drones, although it focuses on one company and does not test the impact of several rival companies operating in the same airpsace. Wing, which is owned by Google's parent company Alphabet, allows consumers to order takeaway food, hot coffee or chemist items on a mobile app and have them delivered by drone within minutes. (The rule on not flying within 30 metres of people does not apply for this trial.)

A July report by the ACT Legislative Assembly's standing committee on economic development and tourism considered public concerns ranging from privacy and safety to the effect of the drones flying over domestic animals and wildlife. It noted that noise, which has been a particular sticking point, requires better regulation.

With the federal government now reviewing drone noise, it found that decibel levels from the trial drones in June exceeded the standard levels for residential areas in Canberra.

Let us explain

If you'd like some expert background on an issue or a news event, drop us a line at explainers@smh.com.au or explainers@theage.com.au

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Jenny Noyes

Jenny Noyes is a journalist at the Sydney Morning Herald. She was previously a writer and editor at Daily Life.

Tom McKendrick

Tom McKendrick is Head of Audio & Video, Metro Publishing.

Felicity Lewis
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Felicity is the National Explainer Editor and Multimedia Editor for the Sydney Morning Herald, The Age, WA Today and The Brisbane Times.


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