Drones, productivity and the law

Drones or remotely piloted aircraft (RPA) are being used more extensively in Australia and receiving more media coverage. 

Over the past few years, drones have become much less expensive to obtain and easier to operate.

Improvements in drone operational functions, including increased range, and the inclusions of more commercial functions, including high resolution photography and audio and thermal data to capture commercially valuable information, have created a surge in demand for information collected by drones.

At present, drones are being used commercially in Australia by a number of industries. Prospective purchasers of property are able to check out neighbourhoods via virtual tours using footage collected by drones. They are used in the mining industry to observe remote mine sites and in agriculture to check orchards and other crops.

The productivity gains in such applications are obvious - it is clearly much faster and cheaper to collect information from a drone than to travel to the destination to collect the same information in person.Drones flying in a clear blue sky

Drones are also increasingly used to provide valuable low-cost information to public agencies for traffic management, surveillance of remote areas and public safety, such as flood, fire and surf patrol.

However, while the general public has been watched by closed circuit and other remote security cameras and sensors for years without (much) protest, there seems to be something fundamentally different about data capture from moving aircraft for commercial purposes or purposes not strictly related to public safety and crime prevention.

Licences to operate drones

The Australian Civil Aviation Safety Authority (CASA) regulates the operation of drones.

Regulations currently impose licensing requirements for most drone use, including safety and equipment standards. CASA regulations impose limits on when and where drones can operate, amongst other factors.

A license is generally required for operation of a drone for commercial purposes. Purely recreational or hobby use of a drone does not yet require a license.

Drone operators must comply with time and location restrictions. In general, operation of drones over populated areas (city centres), sports events and beaches is prohibited or subject to strict regulation.

Night time operation is generally prohibited. Flying altitude is also strictly regulated.

Data collection and drones

The collection of information is regulated in Australia through a variety of laws.

This legislation applies to any data collected through operation of drones.

Dan Brush, Colin Biggers & PaisleyPrivacy legislation applies to the collection of personally identifiable information (PII) and other sensitive information. PII is information which can identify a specific person.

Sensitive information includes health, financial and racial, sexual and other information, which may or may not also be personally identifiable information.

Dan Brush is an information and communications technology lawyer in the Sydney office of Colin Biggers & Paisley.

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