A Senate inquiry into the use of drones and associated technologies has found “immediate action” is needed to make the development of this sector safer in Australia.
The Senate Rural and Regional Affairs and Transport References Committee is currently investigating regulation and safety measures for the use of “remotely piloted aircraft systems”, “unmanned aerial systems” and “associated systems (drones)”.
The committee, chaired by Senator Glenn Sterle from Western Australia, comprises Senators Barry O’Sullivan, Chris Back and Anthony Chisholm from Queensland, Senator Janet Rice from Victoria and Senator David Fawcett from South Australia.
While the committee will present its final findings of the inquiry to the Senate on December 6, 2017, it released a number of preliminary recommendations this week.
“There are growing concerns both within the aviation industry and amongst the general public about the safety of recreational drone use,” the committee said in a statement.
“These concerns emanate from an increasing number of reports of aviation incidents and mounting fears of the real prospect of a serious accident.”
As a result, the committee is lobbying for the implementation of stricter regulations through obligatory safety awareness and training for recreational drone users before they purchase and use these devices; tracking by the Civil Aviation Safety Authority (CASA) of all registered drones regardless of size or intended use; and the introduction of geofencing technology to prevent collisions between drones and aircraft, especially in high traffic areas.
The committee is also looking into mandatory flight logging and the display of registration marks.
Sydney-based Tekuma, led by co-founders Michael Griffin and Annette McClelland, is one of the many new startups in Australia that could be affected by such regulations.
Griffin says Tekuma, which explores “new ways of controlling drones” by making these devices more intuitive and easier to fly, largely caters to aerial photographers.
He believes the impact of tighter regulation on startups in this space will boil down to how much it costs, especially with training requirements.
“It comes down to the risk with that drone,” he says.
“Drones that are under two kilograms [shouldn’t] be a concern. For those light aircrafts, as long you read the brief pamphlet they give you and use common sense it’s more than safe.”
While it may help to do a “basic online quiz” before flying in restricted or high traffic air spaces, rolling out mandatory training for all drone devices that costs around $2000 would be “unreasonable”, he says.
“I suspect that would start dampening, maybe not necessarily the innovation side of things, but it would definitely start slowing down the industry as a whole,” he says.
However, Griffin says it would be fair to mandate registration and monitoring of drones, as collisions can be “lethal” and people should be held accountable for breaking the law.
While most flight operators are safe, he says, there are always a few “cowboys” who “ruin it for everybody”.
“It’s exactly like driving a car,” he says.
To be effective, Griffin believes any new regulations should keep up with “the way we fly nowadays”.
“I know other startups who are doing autonomous flights and they’re having all sorts of problems because the legislation is designed for piloted aircrafts and not for autonomous aircrafts,” he says.
“For the most part, CASA has been very forward-thinking in their regulations but I feel they have let Australia down in the autonomous part of it.”
The drone capital of Australia
In February this year, a public hearing on drone regulation was held in Dalby, Queensland, where the committee leading the Senate inquiry saw demonstrations from local businesses, including like aerial system specialists Horizon UAS and Flying Ag.
At the meeting, committee members called Dalby the “drone capital of Australia” and recognised the “huge benefit” such technologies are having on the agricultural sector.
Western Downs deputy mayor Andrew Smith argued that drones play a critical role for local businesses.
“For a large area such as the Western Downs, drones will play an increasingly important role in road monitoring and maintenance and severe weather and emergency management, as well as disaster recovery,” Smith said.
When Senator Fawcett asked if the council believes it’s responsible for enforcing or reporting breaches of regulations by recreational drone users, Smith said it would step in if harmful incidents occurred.
“I dare say, as the technology unfolds — a bit like mobile phones, I guess — and until a large number of the population end up with this technology, we probably will not see those issues,” Smith said at the time.
“Certainly reporting is something that we would do but from a policing perspective I guess we would have to be governed by the act and by legislation.”
In response to the issue of privacy, Smith said the council hasn’t received any formal complaints about this but believes it’s the “biggest on-the-street concern” for residents.
StartupSmart contacted Senator Sterle’s office for further information about the inquiry but did not receive a response prior to publication.