So you wanna be a drone pilot Part 2

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Part 2: The naked truth about the commercial UAV business

About once a week I get someone calling me wanting to know how to get into the drone business. 18 months since we first put the building blocks in place for Queensland Drones, I thought it might be a good time to reflect on our journey so far and provide some insights for wannabe commercial drone operators about how this business really works.

The UAV industry has grown like crazy over the past 18 months, from around 200 businesses with UAV Operating Certificates when we got our first commercial drone, to maybe 600 or more now … and that’s not counting the hundreds or possibly thousands of “sub-2kg” operators and farmers who don’t have any kind of licence. When we first started our journey you needed both a UAV controller’s licence and a UAV operator’s licence to fly a drone commercially. But late last year CASA added two new categories that don’t require any training or licensing … people with “micro drones” under 2kg take-off weight who only need to notify CASA of where they are operating, and farmers who can now operate drones up to 25kg on their own farm without any notification as long as they are not being paid to operate them.

Needless to say this was not a popular decision and many commercial UAV operators are still very angry with CASA for what they see as a betrayal of the regulated operating environment in Australia. Some drone operators had spent well over a year and well in excess of $10,000 to become CASA-approved for commercial UAV operations, not to mention $20-30,000 and more on equipment, only to find themselves competing with part-timers who bought a $1000 drone at Harvey Norman.

The state of UAV licensing in Australia

Once there was only one path to get a commercial drone license

There are now effectively three ways to operate as a commercial UAV business in Australia.

First, you can go down the traditional path of spending around $4000 on training to get what is now known as a Remote Pilot’s Licence (RePL), then spend another $1500 and several months going through an assessment process with CASA to be granted an RPA Operator’s Certificate (ReOC). You need to have written comprehensive operating and maintenance manuals, have developed and implemented a job safety assessment and risk management system, keep written logs of all your operations and be re-assessed by CASA on a regular basis to keep your OC. These operators must carry public liability insurance and operate within strict regulatory guidelines.

The second option is to spend $4000 on RePL training and then go to work for a business that already has an ReOC. This has been a popular option for many part-time drone pilots who just want to be able to make some money in their spare time or sell their photographs online. The responsibility for their operations and the cost of public liability insurance is carried by the ReOC holder, who must keep records of their operations, ensure they operate within the terms of the OC operations manual and risk management system, and be liable if they do anything wrong. Some RePL holders work as employees of the ReOC holder and are paid wages, while others work as associate contractors and pay the OC holder a monthly fee and/or a percentage of their earnings.

Operators under both these options can fly larger, more sophisticated UAVs with weight limits up to 7kg, or even 25kg in some cases. They often have blanket permission from CASA to operate within 5 km of unmanned airports (under strict guidelines), to operate within 15m of people and buildings (under strict safety rules) and to fly after dark (under strict safety rules). They can apply to CASA to fly within the restricted spaces of major airports and even to fly beyond visual line of sight (BVLOS), based on strong safety management processes.

The third option – the most popular and most controversial – is to only use drones under 2kg, like the popular DJI Phantom range, and simply register your intention to operate commercially in a specific area with CASA and agree to operate within CASA guidelines. These notifications are valid for up to two years.

Sub-2kg operators, as this third group are known, have to operate within strict standard operating conditions:

  • They must keep their drone close enough at all times to be able to fly it manually if required
  • They cannot fly more than 120 metres (400 feet) above the ground
  • They can only fly during daylight hours
  • They must keep at least 30m away from people (and not fly over them)
  • They cannot fly within any restricted or prohibited area or within 5.5 km of a towered airport
  • They cannot fly in the approach, departure or movement areas on untowered airports or where they might create a hazard to aircraft
  • They cannot fly in populous areas (ie, where a loss of control might cause hazards to people or property)
  • They cannot fly in areas under emergency services control (e.g. near police and fire operations)
  • They can only fly one drone at a time
  • They cannot apply for any conditional approvals (like BVLOS, operations after dark or flying near towered airports)

Most sub-2kg operators cannot get public liability insurance, which means they cannot perform work for major companies and government organisations who usually require such insurance for any UAV operations. If they injure someone on your property or damage your property (or someone else’s property) while working for you, it is possibly you could be held vicariously liable for their actions, especially if they are unable to pay damages themselves.

The above is not meant to be a comprehensive or exhaustive coverage of UAV licensing, just a summary. Refer to https://www.casa.gov.au/aircraft/landing-page/flying-drones-australia for the latest and most comprehensive coverage of UAV laws and regulations.

Read Part 3 – The State of the UAV industry in Australia

Get in touch with Queensland Drones

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