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Staying safe in the air: How to fly drones when visiting Australia

Camera-mounted drone quadcopter
A camera-mounted drone quadcopter in the air.

Pixabay CC: succo

Recent advances in technology have made drones, also known as remotely-piloted aircraft (RPA) or unmanned aerial vehicles, increasingly accessible to anyone who has a desire to take to the skies.

With their on-board cameras, drones are extremely popular with people looking to take photos or shoot video from the sky.

So it's only natural that many tourists are keen to bring their drones to capture unique perspectives on the places they're visiting.

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For visitors coming to Australia, it's not as simple as just flying where, when and however you'd like.

Here are some rules and tips to stay safe while using drones in Australia.

Size (and purpose) matters

Like many other countries, Australia continues to refine and adjust regulations for flying drones. When flying a drone in Australia, drone size and flying purpose matter. The latest regulations issued by the Australian Government's Civil Aviation Safety Authority (CASA) have classified drones into four categories:

  • Very small: 100 grams to up to 2 kilograms
  • Small: 2 to 25 kilograms
  • Medium: 25 to 150 kilograms
  • Large: Above 150 kilograms

CASA's regulations also clearly define the purpose of flying drones:

  • Recreational flying
  • Commercial flying
  • Flying over your own property

The regulations vary depending on what sized drone you're flying and for what purpose.

For tourists flying drones for recreational purposes, no CASA approval is required, however it is vital that pilots follow the standard RPA operating conditions, which are:

  • You must not fly closer than 30 metres from vehicles, people, or other objects.
  • You must not fly over populous areas such as town centres, events/festival venues, sports ovals or beaches while they are in use.
  • You must only fly during daytime (after the sun is up) and keep the drone in sight at all times. This means you must be able to visually see the aircraft with your eyes rather than relying on the first person view provided by the drones camera.
  • To avoid creating a hazard to other aircraft, you must not fly within 5.5 kilometres radius of an airport or helicopter landing site.
  • You must stay away from restricted airspace, for example operating drones over Sydney Harbour is strictly prohibited.
  • When flying over major Australian cities, you must not fly higher than 120 metres (400 feet) above the ground. Most drones will give you height and distance information on the remote control or video screen.
  • Apply your common sense and stay away from people, objects and avoid violating other people's privacy.
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Know the rules, follow the rules

Peter Gibson, spokesperson from CASA told Australia Plus: "The most important thing for tourists is to understand there are rules and they must be followed."

"It is not a defence to say 'I'm a visitor and don't know the rules', it is your responsibility to know the rules."

Failing to comply with or breaching drone laws could potentially attract fines, and the amount can range from $900 to $9,000.

Drone in flight
Drones vary in size, and have different rules depending on their weight.

ABC News: Norman Hermant

CASA is currently working on an app to help drone pilots determine where they can and cannot fly, which will be suitable for recreational flying or under 2kg commercial flying.

Users can enter their location in the app and will receive notifications of nearby suitable flying zones and 'no-drone zones'.

It will also provide timely updates if any firefighting helicopters are operating in the area.

The bottom line

There's no doubt that drones are great fun and a terrific way to see a new place, but caution must be taken when flying.

If you're in doubt whether you're in a location where it's safe to fly your drone, it's best to keep it on the ground until you can be certain.

It's better to miss a shot than to hurt someone or get a large fine.

DJI's Phantom 2 Vision drone.
DJI's Phantom 2 Vision drone.

Supplied: DJI

Translated by Yao Cheng, also available in Chinese.

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