The Use of Drones: What Does the Law Say?


The rise of the digital age has been marked by an expansion in the types of technologies available to consumers.

Perhaps one of the more controversial technologies to hit shelves in recent years is the drone.

Consumer drones, also known as ‘unmanned aerial vehicles,’ allow users to photograph, record and transmit information using remotely controlled, airborne craft.

They offer many advantages; enabling users to obtain aerial footage without the need for manned aircraft such as helicopters, which can be expensive to operate.

They also allow users to take photos and videos in situations which would otherwise be inaccessible, dangerous or illegal to reach.

For these reasons, they have become popular with real estate photographers, police, and even the media.

However, the use of drones has raised questions about the extent to which they may impinge on privacy rights – and, perhaps even more importantly, the ways in which they may pose a threat to public safety.

Last week a man was fined $850 after he attempted to use his drone to obtain footage of a siege in Melbourne’s western suburbs.

Authorities believe he was trying to take pictures of a police operation – but his efforts didn’t go to plan.

His drone lost control after it hit a power pole and it was confiscated by police.

Aviation authorities say the incident highlights the dangers of using drones in situations involving emergency personnel.

There are also concerns about the use of drones near large crowds or gatherings as there is the potential to cause injury to members of the public if used inappropriately.

Earlier this year, a Perth woman suffered head injuries after a drone struck her during a triathlon.

It is believed that the drone’s operator was attempting to capture footage of the race when he lost control.

Current Laws Regarding Drone Use

So, what does the law say about the use of drones?

The use of drones in Australia is regulated by the Civil Aviation Safety Authority (CASA), which has developed specific regulations regulating their operation.

There are two different sets of regulations which apply to drones – commercial regulations for those who use their drones for business operations, and civil regulations which apply to hobby users.

If you’re wanting to use your drone for business operations, the law requires you to obtain an ‘Operator’s Certificate’ – similar to a driver’s licence, but for drones.

You also need to have all commercial flights approved by CASA, which involves lodging paperwork and a flight plan.

If these requirements are not complied with, you may have your Operator’s Certificate revoked, be issued with an infringement notice or even face criminal charges.

For hobbyists, the rules are slightly more relaxed, however you will be expected to comply with certain requirements in the interests of public safety.

Users must ensure that they only fly their drones during the day, at least 30 metres away from other people and below 400 feet in the air.

Drones must also not be flown over crowds or large gatherings, or within 5 kilometres of an airport.

If you fail to adhere to these regulations, you could cop a fine of up to $8,500.

You could also face criminal prosecution if your actions injure another person or their property.

A need for better regulation?

A spate of safety incidents, coupled with concerns that drone use may impinge upon privacy rights, led the House Standing Committee on Social Policy and Legal Affairs to conduct an inquiry in July into the laws governing drone use in Australia.

It found that as drones becomes more commonplace, tougher laws are required to deal with privacy and safety concerns, as there are a number of gaps in the current laws.

The Committee made six recommendations – including for CASA to include information about Australia’s privacy laws on safety pamphlets distributed to vendors of drones, and for the pamphlets to ‘highlight remotely piloted aircraft users’ responsibility not to monitor, record or disclose individuals’ private activities without their consent.’

The Committee also recommended that the government introduce specific new laws providing protection against ‘privacy-invasive technologies’ such as drones.

It is hoped that these laws will be introduced by July 2015, however it is not yet certain what form the new laws will take.


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About Ugur Nedim

Ugur Nedim is an Accredited Specialist Criminal Lawyer and Principal at Sydney Criminal Lawyers, Sydney's leading firm of criminal and traffic defence lawyers.
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