‘Just look at Gatwick’: Drone regulations welcomed, but WA Senator calls for ‘deeper’ focus
As the Australian government steps up to introduce stricter surveillance of drones, Federal WA Senator Glenn Sterle says it's a welcome start, but needs deeper focus.
Mr Sterle, who chaired a bipartisan Senate inquiry into drone safety regulations, felt the sudden decision “came from Gatwick.”
"It's a good start but I do believe they’ve been looking into it given Gatwick," he said.
"We had the report tabled in July 2018 but we haven’t had a courtesy response from the government. Now, (the Civil Aviation Security Authority) is looking into the inquiry.
"I don't know how they're going to track all those serial numbers but we should be able to know who's behind those drones. It's a matter of privacy, public safety and national security."
CASA announced Christmas Eve it would crack down on drone operators, particularly around airport areas, using surveillance technology.
"We’ll have equipment that allows us to see drones in flight, identify weather control on it, where the drones are, as well as read serial numbers of individual drones," a CASA spokesman said.
The spokesman said the crackdown was planned "well before Gatwick happened" and included public consultations over the years, but Gatwick stood as an example of why the real-time capability is needed.
"We’ll use it catch people right there and issue penalties, initially at major airports, then at plush hotspots like the Sydney Harbour," the spokesman said.
Penalties run from $1000 to $10,000.
Drone operators caught flying within 30 metres of other people are slapped with $1000 whereas putting an airplane at risk could land someone in court.
However, Mr Sterle believes the push to catch drone operators through their serial numbers is a solution for a fraction of the problem.
"Drones are considered fun but many forget it is lethal," he saide. "CASA has a map of where you can fly and these tech for serial number scanning are an added check.
"But, kids zapping drones into the air — well, how are they going to figure out rules?"
CASA's solution to the lack of education around drones comes down to it's incoming mandatory national drone registration scheme, coming mid-next year.
Through an online course on safety rules and a general-knowledge test, owners can be certified while CASA accesses their details.
"We’ll be able to contact them via email and make sure they’re getting information on drone hotspots," the CASA spokesman said.
The authority is also working out the penalty part for those who choose to not register.
The scheme comes as CASA takes into account Mr Sterle's bipartisan report. The report urged the government to introduce a "non-onerous financial" mandatory registration scheme and tiered education program.
Under this, beginners have a limit of 200 feet while recreational users have a limit of 400 feet to fly their drones.
But, for Mr Sterle, the problem isn’t the drone's actions, rather users' take on privacy.
"In our public hearings, we’ve heard of accounts of drones buzzing in people’s backyards while they’re in swimming pools, buzzing near people’s rooms in the night," he said.
"I walked from the casino Ed Sheeran’s concert and there’s a drone hovering over all 10,000 of us.
"I don’t have a problem with those who use it for life-saving medications, photography or business but I think our privacy is at serious risk.
"Imagine if someone flew it over our defence bases and police stations purposely or accidentally. Or someone flew drugs in. We have to track and make sure they know what they're doing."
Mr Sterle said there was believed to be more than 50,000 drone operators in Australia but there was no way of tracing their drones, especially those heavier than 250 grams, until this scheme.
"Just look at Gatwick," he said.
In the UK, recreation drones have fitted GPS "geo-fencing" to prevent flying in restricted airspaces.
The Australian government said CASA would continue to support manufacturer’s efforts to utilise geo-fencing technology to prevent drones flying near airports and other restricted airspaces.
However, Mr Sterle’s report notes hospital landing sites, busy airspace sights like the Sydney Harbour Bridge, Gold Coast and Melbourne’s Docklands, and firefighting operations have all been impacted by drones in the past two years.
"Victoria has had four incidents in the autumn season 2017 of drones flying over planned burns," Brendan Zwanikken, then-Manager of Aviation Services at Victoria’s Department of Environment, Water and Land said in the report.
In January 2018, 11 drones — six of which were within 20 nautical miles of the Sydney Airport — had near-encounters with planes.
A Department of Infrastructure, Regional Development and Cities spokesman said the government supported "exciting potential for drones" but wanted to ensure the technology wasn't used for disruptive or illegal purposes.
"[This] is why we have agreed to introduce a registration system to improve the control and monitoring of drone ownership," he said.
Mr Stearle hopes the next step involves lining up drone regulations in equivalence to the US.
"We align ourselves with the US when it suits us," he said. "They have laws surrounding drones not being close to their US Capitol. What makes us so special we can’t have similar laws for our Parliament House, for instance?"
Parliament House is not currently listed as a "prohibited area" but as a "not appropriate" area to fly that falls in the Canberra airport zone.
Dakshayani is a reporter for WAtoday.